Educating all in Colombia


While politicos and Latin America analysts have been preoccupied with next month’s presidential race in Colombia, a truly historic development has gone almost unnoticed. Thanks to the work of the Cornell Law School International Human Rights Clinic, Colombia has joined the ranks of nations that provide free and compulsory primary school education. Four years of work by the clinic and by the Colombian Coalition for the Right to Education came to fruition last week when the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that charging tuition for public elementary school was a violation of the Colombian Constitution.

The immediate result of the ruling is that thousands of children for whom fees were an insurmountable barrier can now go to school. Ideally, the decision could also lay the foundation for the social and economic mobility that has long been missing from Colombian society. Even on a continent where the gap between rich and poor is among the widest in the world, Colombia’s economic inequality is extreme: Political power, corporate might, arable land and vast wealth are controlled by a tiny minority. One factor in maintaining multigenerational poverty has been limited access to schooling for poor children.

Lack of opportunity for the poor has had severe consequences for the country, fueling deep resentment that created the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In the 1960s, before the FARC devolved into the drug-trafficking organization it is today, it gained support among the poor by vowing to create a more economically just society. Ironically, the continuing inequality has served the FARC well, providing it with a steady supply of angry, uneducated adolescent foot soldiers who are easily exploited.

To be fair, the links among education, economic opportunity and security are not lost on Colombians, and under President Alvaro Uribe, the government has increased access to primary, middle and high school. In a report issued last month by the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Colombian officials said the government had increased school spending by 425% in the last seven years. About 35% of the college-age population, half of whom are women, attend a university.

The front-runner to succeed Uribe is former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. He too is popular, having overseen dazzling successes against the FARC during his tenure, and he has promised to bring the rebels to heel. But in the end, sending the country’s poorest children to school may go further toward bringing stability to Colombia.