After four years of Bolsonaro’s aggressive agenda, education is a key battleground for President Lula in Brazil


“A particular battle ground within Bolsonaro’s neoliberal project in Education was the higher education sector, where his government sought to cut the funding for all public universities and federal institutes by 30%, targeting disciplines Bolsonaro declared as “communist.”

With the re-election of the Lula, the Workers Party (PT) and, the broader left to power in Brazil, Logan Williams examine a cornerstone of Lula’s progressive policy – reform to the Brazilian education system

The merits of the Brazilian system under the previous PT governments are plain to see through the country having one of the most inclusive curriculums in Latin America out of respect of the various indigenous populations across Brazil. In order to understand the progress made by the current Brazilian education system, it is necessary to examine both its historic foundations and the reality of education following the re-election of Lula.

The foundations of the alternative

In the decades preceding Lula’s first-term election at the head of a PT-led government in 2003, education in Brazil, especially amongst its working and indigenous populations, was not prioritised by both the military dictatorship and subsequent governments. Following the collapse of the military dictatorship, the right to education was enshrined within Brazil’s 1988 constitution but with the clarification that it allowed private and non-governmental organisations – key amongst them the Catholic Church – to continue to provide educational services.

The first democratic government of Brazil; led by Fernando Cardoso, attempted to alleviate poverty through embedding neoliberal economics and ideology at the heart of the Brazilian state. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than through the actions of his government in restricting state and county governments expenditure on education to a meagre 25% of their revenues on public education. Cardoso’s neoliberal turn would see 18.9% of students drop out of school by the age of 15.

As a result of this neglect, throughout the early twenty first century the governments led by Lula and Dilma Rousseff sought to place access to education as the bedrock of Brazilian society. The cornerstone of this policy approach was the launch of two major social programs, namely the Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero social programs. Both of these programs sought to alleviate the impact of poverty on families across Brazil to, in turn, stem the tide of secondary age school dropouts.

 Bolsa Familia was a targeted wealth transfer to more than 50 million people, a major portion of the country’s low-income population, with the conditions of ensuring their children stay within full time education and receive regular health check-ups. Studies have proven that ninety-four percent of the funds reach the poorest 40 percent of the population with most of the money being used to buy food, school supplies, and clothes for the children to ensure they are prepared for their day to day schooling.

The Fome Zero program was established by Lula’s government in 2003, combatting food insecurity and hunger in working class communities across Brazil. This program worked hand in hand with the National School Feeding Program, which provided free meals for children and adolescents in public schools, in addition to professional qualification courses. As a result of the Fome Zero program, Brazil would see a reduction in the percentage of the population considered to be undernourished by 82% between the years 2002 to 2013 due to the provision of adequate food for working class families.

 As well as seeking to address the social issues that place a barrier to those communities struggling to access education, Lula’s government sought to increase the number of disadvantaged students attending public university. In 2005, Lula’s government introduced the University for All programme (Programa Universidade para Todos), which set up a scholarship system for low-income students. As a result, the number of enrollments in higher education more than doubled during Lula’s and Rousseff’s governments, rising from 3.5 million in 2002 to more than 7.1 million in 2014, according to the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (Anísio Teixeira).

Alongside reforms to the ability to access higher education, Lula’s education policy led by Fernando Haddad, sought to embed the status of education as the backbone of a nation’s development within the Brazilian people through the establishment of a curriculum based on meeting the needs of all Brazilians. The Ministry of Education would pass legislation on a variety of reforms to the national curriculum. These reforms would see it become mandatory to teach; Afro-Brazilian history and culture in primary and secondary schools, the history and culture of indigenous peoples in primary and secondary schools. Alongside this the ministry of Education would establish a national minimum salary for public school teachers in basic and secondary education.

Each of these key social and economic reforms aided Lula’s government to invest heavily in Education; from 10.5% of the GDP in 2000 to 18.5% in 2018 and raise the educational outcomes of the people of Brazil. These reforms and investment would see between the years 2005 and 2012, the enrollment of four-year-old children in Brazil increase by approximately 24 percentage points, reaching 61% coverage, surpassing Finland (59%) and approaching Poland (65%) respectively.

Education under Bolsonaro

Following the election of the extreme right-wing government led by Bolsonaro. The Brazilian government reembraced the ideology of neoliberalism and, launched a project is to dismantle public education by starving the education sector of funding before attempting to privatise the entire sector. The effect of these policies on the children of Brazil was profound with a study released by UNISEF in 2022 showing that more than 5 million children were out of school at the end of 2020, with almost half of them being aged between six and ten. This study would also highlight that reading and math skills of Brazilian schoolchildren aged 7 dropped in 2021 in relation to 2019, according to data from standardized tests conducted by the Education Ministry.

A particular battle ground within Bolsonaro’s neoliberal project in Education was the higher education sector, where his government sought to cut the funding for all public universities and federal institutes by 30% and, targeting disciplines Bolsonaro declared as “communist,” such as sociology and philosophy, by cancelling scholarships for at least 3000 masters’ degrees and PhDs.

However, the Brazilian Labour movement did not accept these “reforms” willingly. Instead, both the teachers union and the students union organised national joint days of action to demand the repeal of these reforms.  A clear example of which came within 2019 when over a million education workers and their students took to the streets to demand the repealing of the decision to cut 30% from the federal education budget. Heleno Araujo, national president of the National Confederation of Workers in Education (CNTE) described “The measures taken by the Bolsonaro government are an attack on municipalities, on states, on the population. Without investment in education there is no development”.

Lula’s vision for education in the 2020s

Upon his inauguration as President of Brazil on the 1st January 2023, Lula sought to lay out the key tasks facing his administration. He and his Vice-President Geraldo Ackmin assumed the task of fighting day and night against all forms of inequality in Brazil. He stated this administration will tackle the “inequality in access to health, education, and other public services. Inequality between the child who goes to the best private school and the child who shines shoes in the bus station with no school and no future” which plagues contemporary Brazil following the Bolsonaro government. He argued that the government will achieve this through investing heavily in education and referred to both the previous Lula and Rousseff governments’ records on achieving progress within Brazilian education.

In order to tackle the issues left by the Bolsonaro government, Lula has appointed Camilo Santana, a former governor of the northeastern state of Ceará, as Brazil’s new education minister. Santana appears to have been given the role of ensuring the education sector recovers due to his experience in Ceará where despite having only the 17th-highest human development index among Brazil’s 27 states, Ceará ranked third in the basic education development index (Ideb) among early elementary students in public schools — and first for the late elementary stage.

The achievements of Santana in Ceará have been identified by the World Bank who argue that “Ceará’s municipalities are highly efficient in their use of funds to generate results in education, as they invest less than one-third of what the richest Brazilian states do, and even so, they achieve better results”. The key to these results appears to be rooted in Santana providing professional and financial autonomy to educators and their respective local communities across the state which allowed the central government to focus on recruiting and training excellent teachers.

The achievements generated through both the Lula and Rouseff-led PT government’s educational policies despite overwhelming material difficulties offer a crucial example of an education system forged for all which British educators, progressives, socialists and trade unionists alike post-Covid should seek to learn lessons from. We must continue to build support for the people of Brazil following the re-election of Lula by building and supporting the Brazil Solidarity Initiative and, urging our unions to forge links with their Brazilian brothers and sisters to engage in dialogue of how we can forge a global progressive alternative post COVID-19.

Featured image: A school in the Northeast region of Brazil (Escola Duarte Coelho). Photo credit: Passarinho/Pref.Olinda under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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