By Abhijit Katikaneni 

Brazil is a country with great disparity and destitution, 21.4% of Brazil’s population lies below the poverty line.[1] Brazil employs an open competitive political system but its effects have not been straightforward. Brazil’s education policy’s efficacy at times has been hampered due to its open competitive political system and the number of allies the governing party houses. Has democracy in Brazil endorsed equity-enhancing reforms in the arena of education? Brazil and its policymakers has worked towards equity enhancing reforms with the creation of institutions such as FUNDEF and has been successful to an extent but inequity in the education policy itself creates inequality and further widens the socioeconomic gap. But with the creation of institutions such as FUNDEF Brazil’s population of 21.4% under poverty line could leave the poverty cycle and embark on a prosperity cycle with the aid of education.[2]

I will be highlighting how education policy has been approached in Brazil and then will look at how political actors over a period of time have approached education policy and the challenges in framing policy they’ve faced and will illustrate why it is of utmost importance to provide quality reforms and not access reforms.

Education policy in Brazil: 
Brazilian policymakers have preferred and focused on providing an increase of services in the education sector, aiming for access reform instead of focusing on equity enhancement through a restructuring of the sector. Public schooling at the primary and secondary levels do not promise a high quality education, Brazilian governments traditionally have not held it to be a central concern. Brazil spends 5.1% of its GNP on education in the aggregate however their achievement outcomes are poor by those standards, spending per student on secondary and primary education ranks below most Latin American countries.[3]

With the help of public policy, schooling can be one platform in which one could reduce inequality and make an impact, it should be central to equity enhancing reforms. Public primary and secondary education needs to hold its own and have a strong foundation, as the beneficiaries of public schooling are the poor people as most upper class and middle class Brazilian opt for private schooling. A good education is essential to escaping the poverty cycle. A close link between education and salary levels in the Latin American nations illustrate this.[4]
Education technocrats and politicians have long tried to improve the education sector in Brazil not only to increase welfare but also to enhance and enable Brazil to compete globally.

President Cardoso’s priority was to provide better schooling. However, there has no been social movement targeted at providing high quality public schooling since democracy had been reinstalled. That might be due to low levels of civil society.[5] In other countries, the middle class stresses the importance of high quality education and presses for it whereas in Brazil the middle class has long left public schooling at primary and secondary levels, the middle class is no more a stakeholder. And whereas parents from low education background make demands about the functioning of the school, they don’t press for reform in education.[6] In any case we would expect Brazil to have improvements in outputs and results due to the fact that politicians still have to appeal to the poor. However this is not the case.

The state has increased funding to all three levels of education: primary, secondary, and tertiary by almost 30% since the late 1980’s.[7] An increase in funding can be seen at federal, state and municipal levels. Brazil’s Human development index improved in 2006 and that was largely down to increased access to education.[8] The focus is levied upon the percentage of children between the ages of 7-14 attending school but the quality of education they receive is not taken into account, which is of prime importance.[9] An issue of access reform versus quality reform, focus needs to be levied upon providing quality reform once the goal of access reform has been achieved.

Political hindrances to Policymaking:  
Apart from an increase in spending, other efforts have been made to develop the quality of basic education. The first of these started with Brazils new democratic regime as President Jose Sarney at the helm. However due to the number of political parties in Brazil, patronage oriented allies are common and each of the allies according to their respective agreements with the party control a particular ministry.[10] The Partido da Frente Liberal (PFL) an ally of Jose Sarney controlled the ministry of education; the ministry was ineffective in the mid to late 1980’s. For instance, the education ministry on the base of project proposals presented was to make transfers to states and municipalities, while suffering from low administrative capacity. But the ministry undermined the quality enhancing value of the program and focused on making political qualifications rather than the looking at the projects comprehensiveness, which was the goal. When the PMDB won 25 out of 26 state governorships in 1986,[11] transfers from the ministry to state governments were reduced considerably while transfers to municipal governments as to where Jose Sarney political allies continued to stay strong were increased by 600%. These are the kind of hindrances policymakers face in shaping policy, the goal is to develop institutions such as FUNDEF to bypass such problems. These problems will remain as they are engrained in politics and policy making but the creation of institutions that are independent will help overcome the problems.

FUNDEF under President Cardoso: 
A team of highly devoted reformers under President Cardoso overlooked some improvement with the inception of FUNDEF (Elementary Education Development and Teacher Valorization Fund). FUNDEF’s success was the chief concern they pursued in education. The program is designed to deliver technical assistance and federal funds to municipalities and poorer regions that do not reach their goal of FUNDEF – clear minimum threshold spending per student which is around three hundred reais in 2000 despite reaching their constitutionally allocated budget spending on Education. Municipalities and States that are better off and which spend above their mandated mark are required to subsidize their counter parts who are not performing well. FUNDEF is the most equity-enhancing program in Brazils education system as two-thirds of the benefits go the North and North east.[12] One important difference between reforms employed by President Sarney and President Cardoso was the ability of the ministerial teams commitment to reform and the backing provided by President Cardoso. The ministerial team moved fast and discreetly in order to keep the program on a low and before the stakeholders could estimate their costs the program was passed within a month with the help of a majority backing President Cardoso. By the time opposition formed it was too late and by the 2000’s the results of the program spoke for themselves.

Inequity in possibly Brazils most equity-enhancing sector: 
Possibly the clearest equity-enhancing reform Brazil could pursue would be to redistribute financing among the three levels of the system (Primary, Secondary and Tertiary). Brazil’s spending on higher education is close to the highest in the world, the country spends 4.7% of its GDP on education, one quarter of it is spent on higher education, which enrolls 2% of all students. [13] On a per capita basis, students in universities enjoy more than 2.5 times funding of primary school students.[14] The state having to burden itself by taking the total bill of public universities hinders equity-enhancing reform. Most public university students are middle class and pay nominal fees.[15]Entry to universities is based upon competitive examinations and students who attend public primary schools and secondary schools are underprepared for these examinations due to a lack of quality education. And that is in part due to states having to bear total bills of public universities. No funding goes towards the betterment of public primary and secondary education because the interest groups with around higher education namely university students, their professors are from the middle and upper classes. They are prepared to mobilize against change and the interest groups with low income are not. Governments fear backlash from student protests is they try to put financial burden on them or try reallocate funding from tertiary education to the other two levels which is arguably more important to get people out of the poverty cycle.
The interest groups who stand to benefit from the status quo remaining are stronger than low-income groups that would actually benefit from vital reform.

I have illustrated above that the only way to bypass or overcome the politics for personal gain or to disrupt the status quo is to build institutions such as FUNDEF that facilitate growth from the bottom to top and form human capital and enable low income groups to get out of the poverty trap and kick start a prosperity cycle to lower the percentage below the poverty line. Brazil also needs to relook its policy on the amount of funding tertiary educations gets as that is only helping the ones who do not really need it. Brazil in order to compete globally, reduce poverty and increase human capital need to invest further in public primary and secondary education via institutions.

Abhijit Katikaneni is a student from the GCPP14 batch. He is currently studying international relations at the University of Rochester.

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[3] Draibe, Sonia. 2004. Federal leverage in decentralized system: Education Reform in Brazil

[4] Stallings, Barbara and Wilson Peres. 2000. Growth, employment, and equity: The impact of the Economic reforms in Latin America and the Carribean. Brookings institution Press.


[6] Nelson, Joan. 1999. Reforming health and education. Overseas development Council and Johns Hopkins University press.

[7] World bank. 2004. Brazil: Equitable, Competitive, sustainable: Contributions for Debate. Washington DC: world bank.


[9] Gitahy, Ana Carolina, and Rafael Pereira. 2003.

[10] Cohon, Adam. 2015. International Relation 225. Lecture Feb 9th. University of Rochester.


[12] Moura Castro, Cladio de. 2000. Education: Way Behind but trying to Catch up.

[13] Moura Castro, Cladio de. 2000. Education: Way Behind but trying to Catch up.

[14] Unesco Global education digest 2007.

[15] OECD ( 2004, 2007) – socioeconomic profile of public university students in brazil