ASUNCION – Thousands of secondary school students marched in the Paraguayan capital on Friday to demand that the government earmark the equivalent of 7 percent of gross domestic product for spending on education.
Protesters urged Finance Minister Santiago Peña to amend the proposed 2017 budget to allow for an additional 960 billion guaranies ($177 million) in spending on schools.
The extra money should be used to “distribute more textbooks, increase teachers’ salaries and invest in the schools that are falling down,” Vetner Lopez, a representative of the Unepy student federation, told EFE.
“Virtually every day, a roof collapses at a school,” he said.
Though one of Enrique Riera’s first decisions when he became education minister in May was to declare an emergency over the physical state of Paraguay’s schools, Congress’ failure to appropriate money has kept needed repairs on hold, Lopez said.
The United Nations recommends devoting 7 percent of GDP to education, about twice what Paraguay currently spends on its schools.
The government has responded to students’ complaints with ambiguity and “proposals that don’t materialize,” said Ernesto Ojeda, an activist with the Fenaes student organization.
Ojeda criticized the “authoritarian and dictatorial discourse” of the education minister, who told the students to march on the weekend and threatened to penalize those who missed classes to take part in Friday’s mobilization.
“We’re not going to wait until Saturday for the roof of our school to fall in,” Ojeda said. “We’re suffering academic repression and those of us who demonstrate appear as ‘absent’ in classes, they take points from us or, if we have a test, a zero appears in our grade book. That’s how authoritarianism begins.”
The high school students were joined for Friday’s march by members of teachers unions and contingents of undergraduates from Universidad Nacional in Asuncion, Paraguay’s largest institution of higher education.
“We want them to improve the classrooms, we don’t want any more escuelas-ranchos,” teacher Juan Carlos Vera said, using the Latin American term for one-room schools characteristic of poor rural areas.
Escuelas-ranchos typically lack electricity and running water and are often little more than a roof supported by wooden posts.
As they passed the Education Ministry, the students asked to talk to Riera, who emerged from the building surrounded by riot police and addressed some of the leaders by name.
As the minister stood outside, some among the protesters hurled plastic bottles at the building entrance, prompting Riera to respond: “Throw some more, throw some more,” before the cops hustled him back inside.