Cry for Venezuela

The dream of a socialist Venezuela has turned into a nightmare.

It’s depressing to see the disintegration of President Hugo Chávez’s attempt at political reform. Chávez, elected in 1999, was part of the “pink tide” that swept Latin America in the 2000s. He was one of the three musketeers of leftist governments in South America which included Lula da Silva of Brazil and Evo Morales of Bolivia.

The three denounced the Washington consensus of the 1990s which saw neo-liberal policies implemented: privatization of public companies, cuts to public spending on education and health care, foreign investment, and free market strategies.

The Neo-liberal experiment in the Latin Americas collapsed by the end of the 1990’s, leaving unemployment, corruption, inflation and increased inequality. Strained relations with the U.S. left an opportunity for China to partner with leftist governments.

The seeds of Venezuela’s collapse were sown from the start of Chávez’s presidency. Part of it had to do with the ego of the populist president. He believed that he was the people’s true champion and to ensure that he remained in power, he abolished the legislature’s upper house. Despite his public rhetoric of democracy, Chávez was consolidating power in himself.

Chávez’s policies were popular as many were lifted out of poverty with food subsidies, education, and welfare; all funded by the state-run oil company. But things went downhill after the workers of the oil company went on strike in 2002. Chávez fired 18,000 of them and replaced them with 100,000 of his supporters. Since the new workers had few of the technical and managerial skills necessary to run the plant, production fell even as global oil prices boomed.

To make up for falling oil revenues, Chávez borrowed money to fund popular programs leaving Venezuela the most indebted country in the world.

Chávez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, worsened the crisis. Unable to pay for subsidies and welfare programs, he printed money. This drove up inflation making basic goods unaffordable. He instituted price controls and fixed the currency exchange rate, so that imports became prohibitively expensive. Businesses shut down. Maduro printed more money, and inflation grew again. Food became scarce. Unrest deepened, and Maduro’s survival grew more contingent on handouts he could not afford.

In a country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, food has grown so scarce that three of four citizens reported a weight loss averaging 19 pounds in a year.

The collapse of Venezuela’s economy surpasses the Great Depression of the dirty thirties says Ricardo Hausmann, former minister of planning of Venezuela:

“Put another way, Venezuela’s economic catastrophe dwarfs any in the history of the U.S., Western Europe or the rest of Latin America.”

Where words fail to describe the calamity, numbers help. Instead of thinking of lost of wages in currency, think of them as measured in the cheapest source of calories. Minimum wage, so measured, declined to just 7,005 calories per day. This is insufficient to feed a family of five, assuming that all the income is spent to buy the cheapest calories. One-half of Venezuela works at minimum wages.

City streets are marked by black markets and violence. The last reported murder rate, in 2014, was equivalent to the civilian casualty rate in 2004 Iraq.

Venezuela’s heartbreaking fall leaves dreamers of a better world in mourning.

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Is spending on B.C. education really at “record levels?”

The BC Liberals claim in a fact sheet that spending on education is at record levels. A reality-check shows otherwise. Sure, spending is up if you consider only dollar amounts. When inflation is factored in, a different outcome emerges: there is no increase at all.

CCPA on Twitter

CCPA on Twitter

For example, from 2009 to 2013 B.C. education spending increased by 5.6 per cent which is almost exactly the rate of inflation. Across Canada, spending is actually increasing. It’s up by 12.3 per cent according to the Canadian Centre for  Policy Alternatives. Their assessment of the BC Liberals’ claim is blunt:

“As much as government may like to brag about the dollar amounts of funding, ignoring the basic inflation rate and other cost pressures obscures the meaning of those numbers.”

Spending is not at record levels and spending per student is dismal. Compared to the rest of Canada. B.C. is second last with PEI at the bottom. Alberta is second highest with Manitoba at the top.

However, Premier Clark can truthfully boast about record spending in one area. Funding for private schools has increased at more three times the rate of public schools over the past ten years, and is now projected to reach $358 million in the 2016/17 school year.

Premier Clark clearly likes private schools: she sends her son to St. George’s School in Vancouver at a cost of about $20,000 per year. In welcoming a new parliamentary secretary to the minister of education for private schools, she said: “I’m pleased to have him joining our excellent team of parliamentary secretaries, advocating for independent schools throughout B.C.”

She is mistaken in the belief that private schools are better. Student performance is affected by their parents’ socioeconomic status. In a study by Statistics Canada and reported by the CBC, the success of students is a result of resources at home.

“For example, compared with public school students, higher percentages of private school students lived in two-parent families with both biological parents; their total parental income was higher; and they tended to live in homes with more books and computers,” the report says.

Premier Clark makes it evident that she no intention in catching up with the rest of Canada on spending. In her mandate letter to Mike Bernier, Minister of Education, she instructs him not to increase spending:

“1. Balance your ministerial budget in order to control spending and ensure an overall balanced budget for the province of British Columbia.”

At first glance, the plan to close underutilized schools seems perfectly rational until you consider the details. They count computer labs, art and music rooms, as “empty” because they are shared by all students. By this warped calculation, a school with seventeen full classrooms and three “empty” rooms would be only 85 per cent full.

Despite all the perky talk about how great Clark’s government is doing, the real agenda of the BC Liberals is clear: keep spending on public schools low and ensure that private schools are available to the deserving rich.

University ranking system too often based on wrong criteria

Every year, Canadian universities wait with anticipation for comparisons  of their institution relative to others in periodicals like Maclean’s Magazine.  Depending on the results, there is rejoicing or muttering.  But too often such rankings are based on the wrong criteria say the authors of a new report called Missing Pieces II.

education

In their report, Denise Doherty-Deorme and Erika Shaker are critical of the assumptions and methods in which these reports have been used to devalue some, or promote others.  For example, universities are often ranked according to their ability to compete in an environment of dwindling resources.

Such contests force schools to compete without any consideration of the fiscal restraints under which they are forced to operate.  The authors consider factors that take into account how institutions serve the society  –equity, accountability, quality, and accessibility.  According to the report,  B.C. has one of the best post-secondary education systems in Canada.

B.C. ranks number one in equity.  The authors define equity as access to post-secondary education regardless of gender,  place of origin, or socioeconomic status.  Our province has high percentage of low-income citizens with a post secondary education — just one of five areas of research in the area of equity.

We are also number one in public accountability.  This is a measure of how well education serves general public needs, as opposed to narrow interests of corporations or private donors.   Rankings are based on each province’s commitment to funding education.  Private funds come with strings attached.

B.C. ranks second in quality, with New Brunswick coming in first.  Quality is determined by not only the amount of funding for post-secondary education, but where the spending priorities are.  It includes student to faculty ratios, and keeping full-time faculty.

Attracting and keeping full-time faculty is vital to high quality education. The trend towards part-time faculty reduces the quality of education.  Since part-time faculty are looking for regular work elsewhere, a consistent commitment to education is hard to achieve.

Only two provinces, Quebec and B.C. have increased full-time faculty in the college sector.  In the university sector, only Prince Edward Island has increased full-time faculty, and B.C. has reduced full-time faculty the least.

B.C. is fourth in accessibility, which is the freedom to obtain and make use of post-secondary education.  Newfoundland P.E.I. have joined  B.C. and Quebec in freezing tuition fees.  Manitoba has actually lowered tuition fees.  Alberta has increased fees by the greatest amount — 209 percent in the last decade.  Quebec is ranked first in accessibility, followed by Nova Scotia and Manitoba.

Low tuition fees have also had the effect of increasing the quality of education, I think.  Low fees have increased demand for courses from B.C. students and out-of-province students from Alberta. This has some Albertans complaining of a brain-drain to B.C.  Post-secondary institutions have reacted to student demand by raising prerequisites.

In turn, higher quality students has increased the quality of instruction.  In my twenty-eight years of teaching in high schools and at the post-secondary level, one lesson I’ve learned is that the level of  my instruction is determined by the skills of my students.

Too much of the public analysis of post secondary education has taken the form of the forces of simplistic rankings devoid of context.  Such methods serve only to reinforce the rhetoric of restructuring — rewarding institutions that  move away from public  accessibility and towards market accountability — without  examining  the  source  of  this  rhetoric and its harmful influence.

Affordable education should be regarded as an investment in the future. Well paid wage earners return that investment through higher taxes.  They problem with privatized education is that it ignores the contribution that low-income students can make to society.

The lesson that Ireland learned is worth paying attention to.  They made post-secondary education free.  It took a decade for it, and other economic measures, to pay off, but now Ireland is regarded as an European tiger.

Although Missing Pieces II is not exhaustive, nor does it claim to be, the authors make use of a wide range of information from students, activists, educators, researchers, Statistics Canada.  The full report is available from the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives at http://www.policyalternatives.ca/