Independent journalist Nico Bedoya has been in Colombia covering developments related to the guerillas of FARC, who have been fighting the Colombian government since the 1950s.
He followed the rebellion through its violent stages, towards the U-N peace deal, and into the current education strikes stemming in part from U.S. influences on the peace deal policy, during the restructuring of different peace zones.
In Part One of his conversation with Evening News Director Zelos Marchandt, Nico spoke to the intricacies of Colombian politics following the American Government’s “war on drugs,” as the majority of FARC fighters transition to non-military roles .
Tonight, during Part Two of our In-depth look at United States policy in Colombia, Nico Bedoya reports on the continuing collapse of education, especially in poorer districts, where the charter school model pushed by large Catholic businesses is churning out diplomas at a price.
Transcription of Part Two of In Depth with Nico Bedoya
Nico: And something, something I've been working on recently is the, the kind of war on education here.
Nico: Right now there's a national strike of all the teachers in Columbia.
Nico: So basically schools are on hold and all the students are gonna have to repeat a year just because the strike has been going on for a month and a half. But its been really interesting to see, and this has a lot of also relation to the US. How a lot of education in terms of public education, I'm talking about middle school, high school, elementary school here in these conflict zones have been getting privatized. It's to say that basically charter schools have been moving into, to these conflict zones to to to teach the kids because the state doesn't have the capacity to do so. And so I was like analyzing the situation and I saw a lot of parallels with the US and the rise of charter schools in marginalized areas.
Nico: But I mean that's something to talk about in the future I suppose, but um...
Zelos: Well you know we, if you've got time, I've got a little more time and we could talk about it now for sure. I, that was something I was completely unaware about. But I know here in the US, the idea of charter schools was this
Zelos: Are you there?
Nico: I'm sorry?
Zelos: Oh. [laughs] I was saying I would love to talk about it a little bit um here in the in the US, charter schools were supposed to be this answer to the the anemic financial education system that we had, you know. And they've turned into these privatized schools that do in some ways more harm than good, so it's really something to hear that this is happening in Columbia.
Zelos: So the strike you said happened yesterday?
Nico: No this strike has been going on for you know, it actually just turned into a month. The the teacher strike. And you know they're basically arguing for, for better wages, better guarantees. I mean the teachers here for a month, I mean a monthly salary for a teacher here is like 400 dollars.
Nico: And we're talking about teachers who are supposed to be going into conflict zones. Into like schools that are falling apart. Um, to teach three grades in one classroom all at the same time. Um, and so there's one rural sector in particular that's two days away by mule and that whole area which is 22 schools, has been chartered out to a private foundation. Um, so we're talking about close to I mean over 10 percent of the you know schools and teachers here are being privately contracted. Um, because the state is too lethargic and can't keep up with the changing environment. Uh, for example three weeks ago, two professors got shot at here. In a in a in a place that's about eight hours from town, rural um. Their house got shot at and so they fled. They abandoned the territory. Um, and the same professor that was shot at, he he was replacing another professor that was displaced a year and a half ago. So now uh uh and he took a year and a half to replace. So his replacement is gone and now the whole community is left without a science teacher. Um, and it's mostly these higher you know, anyone can do elementary or middle school teaching well not anyone but like you know in terms of knowledge.
Nico: But not anyone can be like a 10th or 11th grade science teacher. And so the state hasn't been able to provide those those posts. And so you know we're talking about close to 470 kids here that are gonna be you know, most likely won't even be able to graduate because of the situation.
Zelos: Who's, who are
Nico: And uh
Zelos: Who are these chartering companies?
Nico: Excuse me?
Zelos: Who are the chartering companies?
Nico: Uh well they're, one is - the one that has the whole territorial value share which is the 22 post. Um, is called Catolica Norte, it's run by a Catholic like a Catholic school. You know so
Nico: And you know they're all they're all - these institutions are often known for um sending teachers that aren't qualified. Or basically selling the diplomas because that's all that matters when it comes time to you know reclaim the contractor like to get paid. And so the education quality is very precarious in places where you know they should be the strongest. Uh, because we're talking about you know the way the conflict has really raged, very... I feel it did marginalize communities in the middle of the jungle and the mountains. Um, so
Zelos: That's terrible. And I wanna make sure I get the name of that charter right. Capatilica Norte?
Nico: Catolica. Catholic.
Zelos: Oh Catolica.
Nico: Northern Catholic.
Zelos: Got it.
Nico: Yeah, like the Northern Catolica.
Zelos: Oh I see.
Nico: And so I mean yeah. Ituango we talk about like a - Ituango has a population of about 25,000 people. 17,000 of which are victims of forced displacement. We have over like 300 victims of anti-personnel mine and over 2,000 like violent deaths in what has been the conflict. Um and so, this has led to the large exodus of professors, of qualified professors, either because they don't see the appeal of going into conflict zones and teaching or being isolated two days away by mule.
Nico: In a you know, in a school. Um and so Ituango which has around 300 teachers to to cover the whole territory has 30 vacant posts. And 22 of those are contracted out, I mean 22 posts are contracted out to to private institutions. And...and something like um, I forget the the statistic but a large number of them are just also provisional professors which means that they, you know, their working conditions aren't guaranteed and chances are that they won't be here for long. So all these conditions combined really really um really you know create bad conditions for students. And and you know we're also talking at a time when armed groups are offering close to 800 dollars for new people who want to join them. And between bad education, lack of opportunities, and a pretty appealing offer to join an armed group, I mean um...it's gonna be hard to to construct peace in that environment. Especially when everyone says that the kids are the future and they're the ones that are gonna be constructing this peace. So um, it's it's a very precarious uh condition.
Zelos: That is precarious. What are the teachers hoping to achieve from the strikes?
Nico: Well they have um a list of - they have along six points that they wanna touch. One is that the state guarantees the gratuity and the need of, you know, public education. Basically guarantee that everyone has free and accessible public education which is in the case as I just mentioned with the whole contracting out of public education. Um - the second one is that uh the government implement what they call horna unca. Right now the Colombian state because of lack of educational infrastructure, it's forced to um hold school basically on two different schedules. Uh, one in the morning and one at night. And so students attend - it's basically split that way. They want it to be so that like you know all students can attend class you know from 8 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon. Like have that be uniform. Um, the other one is the salaries for professors. Like I said uh you know, average salary for the professor for beginning is 400 dollars. Uh, which is close to two minimum wages here which is, you know, not that much and especially when you're running the risk that you're running. Um, the fifth one is you know, the state doesn't often
Uh doesn't often basically pay in time and so a lot of schools are left without administrative capacity. And so the teachers have to do everything themselves. You know, clean uh you know all that kind of administrative stuff the state doesn't comply for. Um pensions all that. Um and the sixth is basically uh they're asking for for projects where teachers can get Master's, Doctorate's, and basically you know higher the capacity for teachers to uh - you know improve on the education and the training of teachers. And right now, they've been on strike for a month with the strike apparently going nowhere um because the state said that there's no money.
Nico: Um so you know that is sure to also shake a lot of people's uh faith in the peace process because especially with like all this money that now has been spent on the war. Uh, "why can't it go towards things like education?" People ask so...
Nico: You know, so people are very
Nico: Very skeptical, yeah.
Nico: And um, and yeah like I mean, here you know the students aren't angry. They're they're marching with their professors to support them. Like uh, like despite the fact that they're probably gonna be having to repeat another year or won't be able to graduate, they support their professors because they know the - the conditions that they're teaching in.
Nico: Um and the the conditions they have to face so...so...so we'll see.
Zelos: We'll see.
Nico: We don't know how long this strike is gonna last. The last time I checked, the government was asking for there to be a mediator because the - the teachers and the government alone aren't getting anywhere. [laughs]
Zelos: Um -
Nico: There's been...it's been complicated. But uh, actually last - last week under the peace accord, there's one point in the peace accord that addresses education in conflict zones. Um, and and last week a decree was signed to kind of move that forward. In terms of, the decree basically focuses on what's charter schools. Um the government says that I quote, "the lack of personnel in areas affected by the armed conflict has forced the state to construct a contract with private parties to provide education generating the following consequences. One, the process of contracting negatively affects the normal progress of the academic calendar. Two, the personnel hired in general do not meet the current standards to be eligible to teach. Three, the posts that have been opened in these zones have not been able to be filled through the national merit contest. Most eligible are declared deserters or the zones are simply not of interest to those left on the list. And four, this form of contracting out public education generates opposition from social movements aggravating the public order." So this was acknowledged by the government themselves.
Nico: And so this decree is meant to hopefully like you know, to stop that private contracting going to public education. Um, however it always - it always has that little catch where it says um where it says um - "only if it doesn't surpass the costs of those already contracted." [laughs]
Nico: So, so you know that little catch is...can be a opening for a lot of you know, for the continuation of these practices. But it's a good step in the right direction. In addressing the small parts but I mean the professors are still, you know still have another five points they're fighting for.
Zelos: Well, I'll be looking forward to checking, to check back in and see what the answer is from the Colombian government in response to the teacher's strike, that's for sure.
Nico: Yeah, absolutely.
Zelos: Alright, I'm going to to let you continue on with your day and I'll be checking back in. [laughs] Like I said, that's a - that's a really complex
Zelos: There's a lot of complexities going on there. It would seem to me that whatever money the government is giving to the contractors could go towards creating um long term educational opportunities with the teachers themselves.
Nico: Absolutely, absolutely. And I mean we're also talking about how where the only institution of higher education was taken as a base for the military.
Nico: So you know the only university or the only place that people could go to to get higher education is right now where the, you know, where the army is stationed so
Nico: So you know, there's still a whole bunch of changes that need to happen for people to really be able to feel the peace but uh, I mean we all have to acknowledge that this is gonna be a long process.
Nico: Uh, I guess mostly waiting is the name of the game.
Zelos: Well I hope it won't be too much waiting going forward so
Nico: Let's hope so -
Nico: But I mean yeah I'll be here for the next uh, year and a half at least
Nico: Seeing if anything changes, if they - if they progress so
Zelos: Ok well thanks again and um yeah
Nico: Alright -
Zelos: I'll give you a shout out in a couple weeks and see, see how you're doing.
Nico: Alright sounds good.
Zelos: Alright have a good day.
Nico: Thank you very much.
Zelos: Thank you. Bye.
Nico: Alright Bye.