Venezuelan School Year Begins without Anticipated Opposition Sabotage

Nearly 98% of Venezuela's public schools successfully opened their doors without irregularities on the first day of the school year this Wednesday despite threats of opposition sabotage and boycotts.
President Hugo Chavez with students during the inauguration of a new public high school on Wednesday (VTV)

Nearly 98% of Venezuela's public
schools successfully opened their doors without irregularities on the
first day of the school year this Wednesday. Opposition sectors had
threatened to sabotage the start of classes with school boycotts and
other civil disobedience in reaction to the passage of the
new Education Law in the National Assembly last month. 

"You see that the squalid ones [the
opposition], who wanted to sabotage the beginning of the school year,
failed," said Chavez during the nationally televised inauguration
of a new public high school on Wednesday.  

The school is named after an indigenous
leader, Cacique Naiguata, and is equipped with science and information
laboratories and sports facilities to serve 400 students. According
to Education Minister Hector Navarro, the Venezuelan government plans
to open hundreds of new public schools and renovate hundreds more this

To observe the start of classes and
report any irregularities, the government sent groups of public defenders
and functionaries from government institutions such as the National
Council on the Rights of Children and Adolescents to visit schools throughout
the day. In some areas, the elected spokespersons from local community
councils also visited schools.  

"On the part of the state, it was
demonstrated that there exists a full and effective guarantee of the
right to education," said Venezuela's top public defender, Gabriela

Some private schools were reported
to have remained closed on Wednesday, to which the Education Ministry
responded with an offer of assistance to fulfill any needs that those
schools were lacking.   

One teacher federation aligned with
the opposition to the new Education Law denounced the low attendance
in some schools in Caracas on Wednesday, and called on the Education
Ministry to respond "with urgency." 

A ministry official responded by explaining
that the schools that experienced low turnout had either been damaged
by the recent earthquake in Caracas or were in sectors where school
registration was behind schedule. He emphasized that the start of classes
in Venezuela has historically been a gradual process. 

New Initiatives 

Among the unique features of this new
school year is the Ministry for Internal Affairs and Justice's initiative
titled, "The Police Go to School," in which thousands of police
will attend training programs in ethics, crime prevention, and other
topics such as "combating drug consumption, as well as strengthening
the vigilance and security of educational facilities" in more than
500 selected schools around the country, according to Minister Tarek

The program is part of the government's
broader effort to improve police conduct and lower the rising crime
rate. Other efforts include the creation of a national university for
police training and a national police force with a new code of conduct that
was composed in a participatory, nation-wide consultation process. 

Another innovative program that was
launched in public schools in several states on Wednesday is the Canaima
project, through which the government supplies 50,000 child-size laptop
computers to more than 1,000 schools (approximately one seventh of all
Venezuelan public schools) to help children learn computer literacy
at an early age. The fold-up computers are equipped with open source
software and educational programs, and were obtained through a bilateral
deal with Portugal. 

"We are not just buying computers,
we are creating a new educational model, we are transforming knowledge,"
the minister for science, technology, and intermediate industry, Jesse
Chacon, commented about the Canaima project. 

Education Law Debate Continues 

Throughout the day, Chavez and Navarro
defended the new Education Law, which expands the state's role in
guaranteeing education as a "universal human right," against the
opposition's claims that it threatens the family and religion and
will allow the state to take arbitrary custody of children and have
overbearing political authority in the classroom. 

Chavez explained the concept of the
"Educator State" stipulated in the law. "Education is established
as a problem of the state, of national priority, not as a business…
Education is a human right and is the responsibility, first and foremost,
of the Educator State," he said. 

Navarro invited wary teachers and parents
to hold meetings in their schools to express their concerns about the
new law. "Those who say they want to hold meetings in the schools
are welcome to do so, as long as it is without political proselytism,"
said Navarro.  

Article 12 of the new law prohibits
"proselytism or political party propaganda" in public schools, but
opposition leaders have expressed concern that the prohibition will
not be respected by Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)
which is by far the largest and most popular political party in the
country with nearly seven million members. 

Chavez emphasized that the law stipulates
that public education funding must progressively rise year by year as
a percentage of the GDP. He called the law an "instrument of liberation
that seeks to create a new society," and said the law was necessary
because "we need a liberatory education for all, equal, free of charge,
and that allows us to strengthen human rights." 

Both Navarro and Chavez urged students
and teachers to take on a new role in public education. Navarro said
teachers should not just "administer knowledge" but "prioritize
humanist values and solidarity." Chavez called on students to educate
themselves beyond the classroom and to "take on a historical consciousness…
because they are the motors and the actors of the great social revolution." 

UNESCO and Millenium Development Goals

Last November, the United Nations Science,
Education, and Culture Organization (UNESCO) determined that Venezuela
is on track to reach the Millennium Development Goals in education by
the year 2015. 

Over the past ten years, the rate of
incorporation of students into the educational system as a whole accelerated
from 65,000 per year in the decade prior to Chavez's presidency to
148,000 students per year over the last decade. 

This has resulted in increases in enrollment
in pre-school from 40% to 60%, primary school from 82% to 96%, secondary
school from 35% to more than 60%, and university enrollment has increased
from 676,515 students to 1.8 million students, according to the UNESCO.