Colombia’s “Free Schools” Bring Self-Reliance, Entrepreneurship to Bogotá’s Poorest

EspañolCiudad Bolívar, a locality of 700,000 inhabitants in south-western Bogotá, is one of the Colombian capital’s poorest and most crime-ridden areas. As German author Raul Zelik writes, it is “that part of the city not mentioned in travel books, where foreign tourists, but also members of the local middle class, are seldom to be found.”

Being no connoisseur of the locality myself, I recently took a cab from the city center and, after an hour-long ride, arrived at one of Ciudad Bolívar’s most remote areas to visit the Calasanz School. This is one of 25 state “schools under concession”— Colombia’s version of free schools (charter schools in US vernacular) — that have operated since 1999 with public funds but under the administration of private providers. As its name suggests, the Calasanz School is run by the Piarists, who, being involved in education provision since the 17th century, also operate two private schools in northern Bogotá, the city’s far more affluent half.

Science class at Calasanz School, Bogotá, Colombia. Source: Calasanz School.

At first sight, the building’s façade is similar to that of another state school down the road, the Antonio García School. On closer inspection, however, the visitor is struck by the differences between both institutions, their staff and their students.

At midday, Antonio García’s schoolchildren pour into the streets in a disarray that reminds one of the Persians at Gaugamela. Whither they go is no longer the school’s responsibility (Bogotá District schools have two sessions, morning and afternoon) and, since most parents are at work, the destination of many students is anyone’s guess. Needless to say, this is a recipe not only for academic failure, but also for drug abuse, juvenile crime, teenage pregnancy, and numerous other ills that affect the whole of society and localities such as Ciudad Bolívar in particular.

At exactly the same time, one finds Calasanz’s primary school children awaiting their lunch in a civilized cue. Their older peers, meanwhile, are hard at work in clean, sober, organized classrooms, where they will remain until 3 in the afternoon. Thereafter they will have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports and dance.

For all practical purposes, the children of the Calasanz school, though it is part of the state system, receive a private education of top quality. The same applies to the roughly 38.000 other students who attend free schools run by institutions such as University of Los Andes, one of Colombia’s best universities, and top private schools such as Gimnasio Moderno, Los Nogales College, and Nueva Granada College. The Company of Jesus, for its part, operates two free schools, whose students are educated under a pedagogic model that has proved its worth over the centuries.

As is the case in Britain — where the Labour Party’s shadow education secretary recently attacked free schools on the day when one of them received top ranks in an official report — Bogotá’s progressive politicians are bent on opposing the free school model in the face of overwhelming evidence of its success.

Óscar Sánchez, the city’s education secretary named by ousted statist mayor Gustavo Petro, is not exactly a devotee of the free school model. Nor are the bureaucrats under his watch, who usually argue that Bogotá’s best state schools are administered by the city, not by private providers. What they don’t mention is the fact that the 25 free schools, which only receive students from Bogotá’s poorest sectors (estratos 1 and 2), were built in some of the capital’s most peripheral and desolate places, whereas those state schools with outstanding academic results are usually located in the city’s central, wealthier areas.

In fact, the degree of Bogotá’s free schools’ academic success is revealed when one compares their results in the Saber 11 test, Colombia’s equivalent of the SAT or A-Levels, to those of state schools in the same district (Bogotá is divided into 20 localidades).

According to the Education Secretary’s Office’s own statistics for 2013, 32 percent of the 25 free schools reached a superior level in the test, while 56 percent obtained a high level and 12 percent a medium level. Meanwhile, of the 153 state schools operating in the same localities as the free schools, fewer than 4 percent ranked in superior and about 44 percent in high. Nearly 49 percent performed at a medium level and more than 2 percent obtained the lowest result possible.

Clearly, Bogotá’s free schools are not only working well academically, but also generally outperforming those state schools with which they should be compared directly in the first place.

Free schools’ results in other areas are just as impressive. On the one hand, they have considerably lower desertion rates than the District of Bogotá’s school system (in 2011, Alianza Educativa’s five schools had a desertion rate of 0.27 percent compared to the District’s 3.9 percent). On the other, their strategy of preventing mischief before it can emerge has allowed them to reduce the level of drug use, pregnancy, and school violence drastically, as is evident when one compares free schools’ statistics with those of the state sector.

For many parents and alumni, free schools’ success is due to the fact that, not being subject to state and labor union dogma, they can impart an education based on the ethics and principles that mold free, responsible citizens. Whether it’s through the spiritual guidance provided by the Jesuits, Piarists or Lasallian orders, or the more secular approach to ethics of the Alianza Educativa, free school students are encouraged to explore what it means to be human and to live harmoniously in society.

A particularly crucial lesson that free schools diligently impart on their children is that one’s birth doesn’t have to determine one’s future. As one Calasanz alumna who is now reading political science at Los Andes with a full scholarship writes:

I was able to think about who I am and who I’d like to be; whether I like the world in which I live as it is or whether I could change it; if, in spite of where we live and how we are seen, we can make a difference and aspire for greater things.

Another alumnus, now holding an economics degree from Los Andes, writes that one of the advantages of free schools is that

we’re constantly motivated to continue our education, and for this reason many of us decide to study further in spite of our social conditions and even against the wishes of our families, which often see no hope in us.

Preparing students for university education, however, is not the sole aim of free schools, nor is it the only means by which they give their children the opportunity to get ahead. Students at the Lasallian Don Bosco School, for instance, receive technical training from the 9thgrade onward. When they graduate two years later, they obtain a technical degree that makes them readily employable.

Many of them, however, have chosen another path and set up their own business, so that they are now creating wealth and employment independently. The promotion of entrepreneurship and self-reliance is probably the least mentioned feature of the free school model, but perhaps this is one of its most important virtues.

Despite free schools’ proven quality across a range of areas, the cost of educating a child in the free school system is considerably lower than in the state sector (the price per student is COL$1.9 million per student per annum in a free school versus COL$3.7 million in the state according to El Tiempo). This is due to a far more efficient system of administration, but also to the ability to hire, and fire, teachers as they see fit.

Indeed, while the renewal of free school teachers’ contracts depends upon their results, which are measured in a series of constant evaluations, public sector teachers are life-long functionaries whose permanence on the job has very little to do with their performance.

Colombia’s largest teacher labor union, Fecode, has resisted the government’s effort to evaluate its members for years under the feeble excuse that, as graduates in “educational studies,” they have already been tested and certified.

When this is the reigning philosophy of the state’s education establishment, is it any wonder that Colombia occupied the last place among 44 nations in the most recent PISA ranking, and that in last year’s test we only fared better than 3 countries out of 65?

Naturally, Fecode and its allies also oppose the free school model. They have exerted significant political pressure upon progressive politicians such as Petro and Sánchez, who at any rate view any private involvement in public services with distrust due to ideology. Until now, the administration has only shilly-shallied, proving itself incapable of formulating a clear answer regarding the fate of the 39,000 students being educated in the 25 free schools, whose contracts expire at the end of 2014 after a 15 year term.

Ironically, the progressives in government, whose stated aim is to end Bogotá’s “social segregation,” are now pitted against parents and alumni from some of Bogotá’s poorest areas, citizens who have freely formed associations to fight for the preservation of the free school model which they see as a means of social advancement.

So much for the theory that the statist left and its intelligentsia are out to improve the lot of the most vulnerable in society.

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