Venezuelan Education Law: Socialist Indoctrination or Liberatory Education?

Venezuelan opposition activists allege that the new Education
Law is unconstitutional,
anti-democratic, politicizes the classroom, threatens the family and religion,
and will allow the state to take children away from their parents for
indoctrination. Are they correct?

By James Suggett - Venezuelanalysis.com
Short URL

Venezuelan opposition activists allege that the new Education
Law, which the National Assembly passed unanimously shortly after midnight on
August 14th following an extended legislative session, is unconstitutional,
anti-democratic, politicizes the classroom, threatens the family and religion,
and will allow the state to take children away from their parents for
indoctrination. Are they correct?

In defense of the law, Education Minister Hector Navarro told
several national media outlets that the opposition's claims are not only
incorrect, they "form part of a campaign that seeks to generate fear in the
population so they will be against the [Education] Law."

Before and after the law's passage, demonstrations both for
and against the law turned into violent confrontations in which tear gas and
other objects were thrown, journalists were attacked, and the police were
deployed to maintain the public order. Opponents of the law, mainly adversaries
of the government of President Hugo Chavez, vowed to sabotage the law's
implementation with acts of disobedience in schools, and others announced they would
challenge the law in the courts. Proponents of the law, mainly Chavez supporters,
formed organizations to assure the law is applied. 

To understand the ongoing controversy, it is helpful to
carefully examine the following three questions: What are the fundamental
tenets of the new Education Law? What are the main critiques of the law, and
are they correct? And, what are the major challenges facing the Venezuelan
educational system now that the law has been passed?

The Law

The official title of the law is, "Organic Education Law,"
meaning it has the highest legal stature under the constitution and is required
by the constitution to uphold constitutional principles.

At the law's foundation is the concept that the state has the
responsibility to ensure that all citizens have a high quality education, free
of charge, from childhood through the undergraduate university level. This
concept of the "Educator State" (Estado Docente) is introduced in Article 5,
which says the state must guarantee education "as a universal human right and a
fundamental, inalienable, non-renounceable social duty, and a public service...
governed by the principles of integrality, cooperation, solidarity,
attentiveness, and co-responsibility." The law also requires "progressive
annual growth" in education spending as a percentage of GDP.

Article 6 lists nearly fifty aspects of the education system
of which the state is in charge, including educational infrastructure, curriculum,
and other administrative tasks, as well as specific duties that exemplify the
principles of the education system established in Article 3. One of these
principles is, "equality among all citizens without discrimination of any
kind." The law mandates "equality of conditions and opportunities," as well as
"gender equity," "access to the educational system for people with disabilities
or educational needs," and the extension of educational facilities to rural and
poor areas. Further, it states that Spanish will be the official language of
the education system, "except in the instances of intercultural bilingual
indigenous education, in which the official and equal use of their [native]
language and Spanish shall be guaranteed." In addition to promoting "the
exchange of social and artistic knowledge, theories, practices, and
experiences," the law sanctions "popular and ancestral knowledge, which
strengthen the identity of our Latin American, Caribbean, indigenous, and
afro-descendent peoples." Finally, Article 10 specifically prohibits speech and
propaganda that promote hate and violence in or around educational settings,
including the news media.

Another principle that is established in Article 3 and is
recurrent throughout the law is "participatory democracy," particularly the transition
from representative democracy to participatory democracy. Article 15 says that
one of the basic purposes of education is "to develop a new political culture
based on protagonist participation and the strengthening of popular power, the
democratization of knowledge, and the promotion of the school as a space for
the formation of citizenship and community participation, for the
reconstruction of the public spirit." The rest of the law is rife with
references to the importance of "learning to peacefully coexist," learning to
learn and teach simultaneously, "valuing the common good," the necessity for
education to be "integral" as opposed to rigidly specialized or one-tracked,
"respect for diversity," and the importance of life-long learning.

Moreover, the law expands the legal definition of the
educational community to include families, community organizations, and wage
laborers in addition to the formal educational workers. Article 20 states, "The
educational community will be composed of all the fathers, mothers,
representatives, students, teachers, administrative workers, and laborers of
the educational institution... spokespersons of the different community
organizations linked to the educational centers and institutions will also be
able to form parte of the educational community." The article describes this
new educational community as "a democratic space of social-communitarian,
organized, participatory, cooperative, protagonist, and solidarity-oriented
character," and specifies, "Its participants will carry out the process of
citizen education consistent with what is established in the Constitution of
the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela." In addition, Article 9 recognizes the
communication media, including the television, radio, and press, as "essential
instruments for the development of the educational process." 

With regard to public universities, the law maintains the
same basic structure that currently exists, in which some public universities
are run by the state and others, known as autonomous universities, are funded
by the state but run independently. But the law modifies the way autonomous
universities are administered in order to rectify structural problems that are widely
known to exist within them, mainly corruption by university administrators and
the lack of transparency and democracy in budgeting decisions. Many autonomous
universities have blatantly aided violent opposition groups by allowing violent
demonstrators to store weapons, tires, and other protest materials and take
refuge on university campuses, the boundaries of which state security forces
are legally prohibited from crossing.

To correct these problems, Article 34 of the law stipulates,
"The principle of autonomy will be exercised with respect to the rights of
citizens consecrated in the Constitution." It also states that autonomous
universities must "elect and choose their authorities on the basis of
participatory, protagonist democracy with revocable mandates, assuring equal
conditions for the full exercise of the political rights of the members of the
university community: Professors, students, administrative personnel, laborers,
and graduates." The article adds, "An anti-corruption council composed of
members of the university community will be elected."

Another problem the law aims to correct is unequal access to
the university system. It is evident that people of greater economic means
disproportionately occupy the limited slots in Venezuela's autonomous
universities. To help correct this, Article 35 states that a new admissions
process shall be created that guarantees "equity in admission." Venezuela's
Higher Education Ministry already outlined its proposal for such an admissions
policy last year. The policy proposes automatic university admission for all
high school graduates who satisfy basic grade and behavioral requirements and
wish to obtain a university education. The aptitude test that is currently used
would be replaced by a diagnostic test aimed at assessing the academic
strengths and weaknesses, career interests, and socio-economic conditions of
the students, for the purpose of placing them in a corresponding university program.
To satisfy the greater influx of university students, plans have been laid out
to construct as many as two dozen new universities across the national
territory, with the goal of facilitating the ability of students to study close
to home.   

Labor rights, particularly job security and benefits, are
another recurring principle throughout the law. Labor protections are
guaranteed not only for teachers and educational administrators, but for all
staff including laborers who perform tasks not usually considered to be part of
the educational process, such as cleaning and cooking. All workers are said to
have the right to, and all students are supposed to be trained for, "liberatory
work." Article 15 states that the educational system must "develop the creative
potential of each human being for the full realization of his or her
personality and citizenship, based on the ethical value of liberatory work and
active participation."

Finally, "respect for human rights" is established in Article
3 as a fundamental value of the education system, and speech or actions that threaten
human rights are prohibited in Article 10. Human rights are also defended in
Articles 6, 14, 15, and 33.   

In addition to the main principles of the new Organic
Education Law mentioned above, the law also says education should encourage an end
to nuclear weapons in the world, fighting racism, and, in Article 15,
"impelling the formation of an ecological consciousness in order to preserve
biodiversity and social diversity."

Criticism

For several months, powerful opposition groups, including the
association of rectors of Venezuela's major autonomous and private universities,
all major opposition parties, much of the privately owned media, some teachers
unions, and the Catholic Church have waged a vicious campaign against the
Education Law. This campaign has not subsided, and even seems to have
intensified, since the law was passed. Overall, the critiques imply and in some
cases assert that the law brings Venezuela one step closer to a becoming a
totalitarian communist society reminiscent of the worst authoritarian regimes
that arose around the world during the Twentieth Century. An examination of
each of the five major points of contention will test the validity of the
opposition's claims and clarify what the law actually says.

Criticism
#1: Politics in the Classroom

Opposition voices far and wide have claimed that the new
Education Law will politicize the classroom and impose what one columnist in
the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal called a "totalitarian vision of
education" that will turn public schools into mouthpieces for party-line
socialism.

During a town hall meeting organized by the Chamber of
Private Education, lawyer Maria Curiel admitted that the law does not contain
the word "socialist," but pointed out that the law does refer to the
government's National Development Plan, which currently advocates concepts such
as a "socialist ethic" and "revolutionary protagonist democracy." Indeed, one
of the state's responsibilities listed in Article 6 of the law is "the
productive insertion of university graduates in correspondence with the
priorities of the Social and Economic Development Plan of the Nation."

Curiel went on to assert the state should not have such a
strong role in education. "What's more, it's the state that exercises the
management. Is this what we want in our schools?" the lawyer asked
rhetorically.

Other critics say that the politicization of the classroom is
enshrined in the law's expansion of the educational community. They fear that
the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), of which Chavez is president, and
local governing bodies known as community councils, which receive national
funding to solve community problems at the local level, will invade schools and
practice Big Brother-like surveillance of the educational system. "It is
unacceptable that they intend to displace educational communities for this
socio-political experiment," railed one El Universal editorial.

The only article in the law which mentions the role of the
community councils in the educational system is Article 18, which states:

The community councils, indigenous
communities, and other social organizations of the community, in their
condition as educational agents and in the function of popular power, are obligated
to contribute to the integral formation of citizens, the formation and
strengthening of their ethical values, the information and dissemination of the
historical, geographic, cultural, environmental, conservationist, and socio-economic
reality of the local community, the integration of the family, the school, and
the community, the promotion and defense of education, culture, sports,
recreation, work, health, and the rest of the rights, guarantees, and duties of
Venezuelans, assuming a liberatory pedagogical role in the formation of a new
citizenry with social responsibility. 

It remains to be seen exactly how the participation of
community councils in the educational system will take form based on this
article. One university student who demonstrated in favor of the law last week
explained it like this: "The community councils will not give classes, as the
private media has made it seem, they will only integrate themselves into the
educational development of youth in their communities... this will allow the
students to be concerned about their surroundings, that is, they will be
knowledgeable about the conflicts in their communities and offer ideas for
their solution."

It is important to note that many opposition leaders frame the
community councils as the sticky tentacles of an overbearing state that wants
to assert authoritarian control over local affairs. While it is true that no
previous government so actively promoted local community organizing, it is also
true that, despite being publicly funded, the community councils function for
the most part independently and are not forced to advocate a party line or
ideology. Moreover, while Chavez supporters have formed community councils much
more enthusiastically than opposition sympathizers, many community councils are
composed primarily or at least partially of opposition sympathizers.

Also, it is important to highlight the section of the law
titled, "Prohibitions of Political Party Propaganda in Educational Centers and
Institutions." Article 12 in this section states, "proselytism or political
party propaganda is not permitted in educational centers and institutions of
the primary education system through any medium: Oral, print, electronic,
radio, informative, telephone, or audiovisual."

It is not surprising that a law that advocates participatory
democracy and involves community councils in the education system has garnered
criticism from people who see this as the politicization of education. However,
the perspective of many proponents of the law is that previous education laws,
which did not advocate participatory democracy and the other values established
in the new law, were no less political. National Assembly Legislator Carlos
Escarrá, a constitutional lawyer, said the new law aims to reverse the
politicization of the classroom waged by the "Fourth Republic," or the
succession of representative democratic governments in the four decades prior
to Chavez's election in 1998. "Ideologizing was what they did during the Fourth
Republic, a period in which they educated students to be non-critical,
non-committed to society, and divided into segments," said Escarrá.

Criticism
#2: Custody of Children

Many media outlets, particularly a string of radio stations
during the month of June, spread the false rumor that the new law would permit
the state to take arbitrary custody of children between the ages of three and
twenty. These radio stations recited false versions of Articles 3 and 4 of the
law, alleging that the children would be placed in state-run "children's
circles" and indoctrinated with "civic and mental training" and "Cuban values."
The allegations grabbed significant national attention, and the education
minister went on national television repeatedly to deny the accusations. He
even read the actual Articles 3 and 4 of the law proposal at the time to prove
the falsity of the claims. The final text of the law says nothing that could
even remotely be associated with or interpreted as validating the claims.

Criticism
#3: Not Enough Public Discussion

Many opponents of the law claim that the discussion of the
law was not long or inclusive enough. They emphasize that the second draft of
the law, which was significantly different than the first, was made public just
one week before the National Assembly initiated its second and final round of
discussions of the law and then passed the final version hours later. They say
the process by which the law was passed was unconstitutional.

The rector of the National Polytechnic Experimental University
(UNEXPO) and president of the University Rectors Association, Rita Añez, told
the press last week, "The law proposal as it has been conceived, behind the
backs of the educational community and the country, is unconstitutional."

Also last week, the University Council at the Central
University of Venezuela (UCV) along with other university groups and the
opposition parties Un Nuevo Tiempo, Primero Justicia, Bandera Roja, COPEI, and
Acción Democrática publicly called for the discussion of the law to be deferred
until the academic year begins in September in order to carry out a nation-wide
consultation with educational personnel.

In response to this critique, proponents of the law point out
that the National Assembly passed the first draft of the law in August 2001. On
and off over the past eight years, legislators hosted what are known as "street
parliament" sessions, which are like town hall meetings or public discussions
of the law's content with teachers unions, student organizations, political
parties, regional and local government officials, and other educational and
civil society groups. Also, over the past month, opponents and proponents of
the law, including student groups, educational organizations, and political
parties marched to the National Assembly to turn in their proposals and objections,
and were frequently invited to meet with legislators. On August 16th,
the full text of the law proposal was published in several national daily
newspapers.

It is important to point out that since the vast majority of
National Assembly Legislators are supporters of the Chavez government, most of
the town hall meetings were organized and hosted by Chavez supporters. But we
must also consider the reason that the National Assembly is so dominated by
supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution: Most opposition candidates, facing
sure defeat in the face of Chavez's enormous popularity, chose to boycott the
2005 National Assembly elections.

Without a doubt, the Education Law proposal was widely
distributed, and its contents were broadly discussed over a long period of
time. However, it is true that the eight years over which the revisions to the
first draft of the law were carried out was a much longer period of time than
the week or so that the second draft of the law was discussed before being put
to a vote. But the section of the constitution which governs the passage of
laws (Articles 202 - 218) does not indicate this to be a problem, so it seems
the opposition's claim that the law's passage was unconstitutional is unfounded.

Perhaps some Chavistas have questioned whether the passage of
the law was consistent with the Chavez administration's stated ideal of
participatory democracy, but this does not seem to be the case given the wealth
of evidence to the contrary.   

Criticism
#4: University Autonomy Violated

Critics of the law say the regulations it places on
Venezuela's autonomous universities in effect violate university autonomy. An
editorial published on August 7th in El Universal outlines three
primary variations of this critique.

First, the editorial says that Article 34 of the law (cited
above), which says university officials must be elected by the entire
university community under equal voting conditions, is a form of "populist
politicking" (populismo politiquero). The editorial appears to defend the
current system of internal university elections, in which top posts are elected
by a small group of university administrators, and in the elections in which
students and professors are allowed to vote, there is a sliding scale in which
students count for one vote, and higher level personnel count for more votes,
while laborers remain excluded. The law recognizes the current system as a
problem that must be corrected by instilling democracy in university budgeting.

Second, the editorial interprets a section of Article 34 to
mean that the government will respect intellectual freedom only in the
autonomous universities, implying that in there will not be intellectual
freedom in the state-run public universities. The section of the article states:
"In the applicable university educational institutions, the principle of
autonomy recognized by the state will come to fruition through intellectual
freedom."

This argument seems quite manipulative because it pretends
the article's purpose is to define which institutions will have intellectual
freedom and which will not, when the evident purpose of the article is to
guarantee intellectual freedom in autonomous universities. Moreover, Article 36
explicitly guarantees "academic freedom, understood to be the inalienable right
to create, expound or apply methodological focuses and theoretical
perspectives, in conformity with the principles established in the Constitution
and the law" in all activities in the entire university system, not just the
autonomous universities.     

Third, the editorial cites a confusing part of Article 35,
which says a special law may be created to govern "the supply of some degree
programs that by their nature, reach, social impact, or national interest,
should be reserved to be given in institutions especially oriented toward
them." The lawmakers seem to think some degree programs need their own separate
university institutions, but it is not clear which programs they have in mind,
and the law does not specify any criteria by which to decide this. Does the
article refer to the training of police, perhaps? The Ministry for Internal
Affairs and Justice recently convoked a commission of public university
officials to lay out plans for a special police university, so this is a
possibility. Does the article permit the national government to arbitrarily
restrict any degree program that an autonomous university may wish to offer? If
so, it would seem this violates the academic freedom granted in Articles 34 and
36. However, the article is too vague to really determine one way or the other
at this point.

Overall, it seems that the opposition's claim that the new
law violates university autonomy is not very strong. The law upholds the
principle that, in Minister Navarro's words, "admission to the universities is
a public good that pertains to the whole society and that cannot be
administered for the benefit of the few." The law also mandates participatory
budgeting and strong labor protections in the universities. These regulations
may annoy the administrators of autonomous universities and cut into their
budgets, but they do not constitute a violation of the principle of university
autonomy.

Criticism
#5: Families and Religion Threatened

Critics claim that the new Education Law threatens the
sanctity of the family and the freedom of religion. Opponents of the law say it
violates Article 75 of the Constitution, which says, "The state shall protect
families as a natural association in society, and as the fundamental space for
the overall development of persons," as well as Article 59 of the Constitution,
which says, "Fathers and mothers are entitled to have their sons and daughters
receive religious education in accordance with their convictions."

The main way the new law threatens religion, opponents say,
is by not including a clause that existed in the previous law, which permitted
the state to give funding to religious education institutions, as long as those
institutions offer high quality education free of charge. Critics claim this
measure threatens the viability of a very well known Catholic organization in
Venezuela called Fe y Alegria, which provides educational services and
broadcasts on radio stations nation-wide. The new law also eliminates seminary
education from its list of official types of education, the opponents highlight.
One editorial in El Universal said the new law has the "rancid odor of 19th
Century anti-clericalism."

In response to these claims, the education minister offered a
simple explanation of the intention of the new law: "Schools are not atheist
now, they are secular like the state, like our Constitution establishes." Maria
de Queipo, the president of the Education Commission in the National Assembly,
clarified that "religious education in schools is not going to be prohibited,
rather it will not be obligatory in the curriculum."

Perhaps the best way to judge whether the law threatens the
freedom of religion is to read the main article addressing religious education,
Article 7, in the section titled, "Secular Education":

The state will maintain its secular
character in educational matters under all circumstances, preserving its
independence with respect to all religious currents and organizations. Families
have the right and the responsibility for the religious education of their
children in accordance with their convictions and consistent with the freedom
of religion and worship, envisaged in the Constitution of the Republic.

We must note that this article assures the "right and
responsibility of families" to manage their children's religious education
without interference from the state. This seems to prove wrong the opposition's
claim that the law violates the constitutional articles mentioned above.

The new law also enshrines families as a fundamental part of
the educational community, which was also mentioned previously. In the words of
the education minister, "We believe the family is fundamental in the
educational process, but we also believe we should accompany it. The teacher
should be accompanied by the family in the educational process."

Minister Navarro's words are illustrated in Article 17 of the
new law, which establishes that "families, the school, society, and the state
are co-responsible in the process of citizen education and the integral
development of its members." This article also states, "Families have the duty,
the right, and the responsibility for the orientation and formation of
principles, values, beliefs, attitudes, and habits in children, adolescents,
youth, and adults in order to cultivate respect, love, honesty, tolerance,
reflection, participation, independence, and acceptance."

Thus, an honest reading of the articles contained in the
Education Law reveals the wrongness of the claim that the law threatens religious
education and the rights of the family.

Challenges

The principal challenge facing Venezuela's education system
now that the new Education Law has been passed is the difficulty of
implementing the law. Two main factors affect the implementation of the law: 1)
The opposition's threat to sabotage any attempted changes to the educational
system, and 2) the enormity and complexity of the task of equipping teachers
who are steeped in a traditional, anti-democratic, competitive, and
individualistic educational methods with the knowledge and tools necessary to
make the transition to a new, democratic, cooperative, and social-communitarian
pedagogy.

With regard to the first factor, the private education sector
is the most actively opposed to the new law, according to El Universal. The
president of Venezuela's Chamber of Private Education, Octavio de Lamo,
declared publicly earlier this week, "The rejection [of the new law] should be
organized and consensual. It is necessary to form solidarity among directors,
teachers, and parents. We are organizing national networks that will connect
with public establishments to confront the law, and avoid government
intervention."

The president of the teachers union Fetramagisterio, Nelson
Gonzalez, said acts of disobedience to the law would go into full force when
classes start in September. "Among the teachers there is a mood of disobedience
because of the way in which the law has been passed. We cannot reveal the
tactics that will be used, but it is clear that we will come to an agreement in
order to impede its application," said Gonzalez.

With regard to the second factor, some opponents of the law
have articulated the difficulty facing teachers at this crossroads for
Venezuelan education.

"By my judgment, the biggest problem with the law is that it
is going to generate a great uncertainty among teachers because they will not
know which norm to follow," said Pedro Garcia from the Simon Rodriguez
Educators Movement earlier this week. Garcia added that this confusion is worsened
by the fact that no special laws have been passed yet to spell out the specific
rules and regulations based on the broad principles in the organic law.    

Garcia has a point. What
does it mean for education to be democratic, to be committed to national sovereignty
and self-determination, to value indigenous peoples, and to guarantee gender
equity? We must acknowledge that the democratic educational methods promoted in
Venezuela's new Organic Education Law are relatively new and undeveloped, and
as a result, scarcely understood. Surely, it is much easier to define the
oppressive educational techniques that train people not to be conscious,
creative, and active citizens, but to submit to authority and fulfill
pre-defined purposes dictated by the powerful; these methods have been deeply
inculcated in us over a long history. Implementing the powerful and visionary
change outlined by the new law will require an ongoing, long-term societal
effort to un-learn the oppressive educational methods of the past, and put into
practice the new educational methods that will form the basis for generations
of participatory democracy to come. This necessary transformation is no small
task, and the opposition to it is demonstrably fierce and formidable.

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