“Education Unions and the Struggle for Democracy”, by Hugo Yasky.
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“As we approach the centenary of the birth of Paulo Freire, whose teachings continue to inspire and influence our actions, the Latin American Pedagogical Movement, EILA and its national member organisations embody the collective will to defend education as a social right and a powerful means for the emancipation of our peoples”. (Excerpt from the Declaration of the XII Regional Conference of Education International Latin America, April 2019).
At the beginning of this century, the world' s working class looked to Latin America as our peoples were bringing democratic and popular governments to power. These governments strengthened public policies, national industries and regional integration while simultaneously seeking to develop policy agendas different from those of the Washington Consensus, which had caused devastating conditions of inequality and exclusion in the region.
This democratic period paved the way for significant progress in the areas of human rights, job creation, improved educational coverage and poverty eradication, but it was not without tensions and conflicts within the social and trade union movement itself, let alone the ongoing actions of the right-wing groups controlling the conservative press, who sought to regain power and resume their hegemonic political projects.
After more than a decade of popular democracies, neoliberal and neoconservative governments have returned to power in Latin America once again. Just as in Europe, the United States and countries in Asia, the governments of countries such as Honduras, Brazil and Argentina are fuelled by hate speech while promoting platforms that lead to considerable setbacks in rights — setbacks that primarily affect the working class.
It is no coincidence that this EI World Congress draws the attention of 32 million teachers to threats to democracy and union rights, as well as the ongoing privatisation of education.In Latin America, these threats are spearheaded by neoliberal governments that bolster themselves with discourses of “transparency” and “quality management”, seeking to whitewash the dismantling of the state and their attack on public policies as merely “technical” and even “apolitical” solutions, when in reality they are imposing neoliberal policies with a distinctly anti-rights ideology. Just as was the case in the '80s and '90s, the conservative sectors view the state and universal, free access to public services as obstacles to doing business. For some time now, neoliberals have been acquiring new skills, and today, instead of wanting to tear down the state, they seek to restrict it to the “minimum necessary” that will enable them to govern within the framework of public-private partnerships (PPPs) and increase private profit by way of public funds.
Throughout most of the region, Ministries of Education have embraced public-private partnerships, portraying them as the means to achieve supposed quality and coverage and to introduce so-called “innovation” to classrooms. In the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay, PPPs provide a legal way for private companies and NGOs to profit from public funds through the sale of curriculum development, teacher training and evaluations, design of educational materials and digital platforms, etc.
Such public-private alliances, which favour profitability and the commercialisation of rights, are backed and often devised by global actors such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Bretton Woods Institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank), which insist on making the provision of funds conditional on regressive state reforms and cuts to public investment.
One only need examine the education agendas of the OECD, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to see that these reforms replicate the failed policies of the 90s, once again promoting policies based on cutbacks and deregulation.In addition, trade unions are faced with a growing trend within governments, namely the permanent presence of the private business sector and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the forums where education policies are drafted and defined. This trend is legitimised by the United Nations System and the bureaucracies of international cooperation, which in many cases even promote these sectors as substitutes for trade union organisations. To this end, they appeal to a novel definition of “civil society” that excludes the representation of educators and confers an exclusive leading role to businessmen and foundations financed by corporations.
International financial institutions, development cooperation (promoted by different so-called philanthropic organisations) and business groups, backed by the complacency of educational authorities, aim to transform education systems ranging from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego into a kind of laboratory where they can experiment with policies and programmes that convert public schools and the educational process into spaces for commercialisation, thought control, exclusion and disciplining of workers and students.Neoliberal governments are exacerbating the indebtedness of our countries and taking on new commitments with the IDB and the World Bank to implement education policies that will dismantle the public education system, destroy work in the education sector and sustain private profits with public funds.
It is for this reason that our schools and colleges are constantly inundated with initiatives that remove educational content, limiting curriculum to language learning, mathematics and certain employability skills; that make financing of education conditional on performance and encourage competition for funding between schools and between teachers; that disregard the value of teaching work and impose deregulated and precarious working relationships; and that fail to recognise the significance of direct interaction with other people within educational spaces, replacing face-to-face learning opportunities with distance education and digital platforms. In countries such as Mexico and Brazil, IFIs have supported reforms that have removed more than 60% of secondary curriculum content; in the same vein, the OECD has recommended that Uruguay, Costa Rica and Colombia focus the educational process on competencies for employment.This is all taking place while insisting on subjecting our education systems to standardised assessment processes and using the conservative media to wage a permanent battle against public education and education workers.
In a time of democracy and free elections, these governments wish to impose the disciplinary, colonialist and alienated education that is so conducive to dictatorships and totalitarian governments. In light of these initiatives, which are both pro-commercialisation and anti-pedagogical, education workers are increasingly deprived of our freedom of thought and pedagogical creativity so as to fall within the standardised model of the teacher who delivers the minimum curriculum that “measures” both evaluations.
Faced with these experimental projects, teachers have responded by intensifying our work in the classroom to guide our students in developing the critical thinking skills that will motivate them to always strive for freedom and rights.
Now more than ever, we must abide by the mandate of the Latin American Pedagogical Movement to stop the commercialisation and privatisation of public education, to foster critical thinking within education communities and, above all, to express this thinking as part of the process of constructing pedagogical models and education policies in our countries.
Four years from now, the Education International World Congress will be held in Latin America. Effective immediately, we welcome and invite all education workers around the world to join us in strengthening our internationalist commitment and in developing proposals to organise, represent and mobilise all workers with a view to once again building democracies that provide fertile soil for freedom, sovereignty, rights and utopias.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.