Free (?) Public Education in Costa Rica

Compared to other Central American countries, Costa Rica’s literacy rate of 94.9% is at the top of the list. (Nicaragua: 67.5%, Houduras: 80%, Guatamala: 69.1%, El Salvador: 80.2%, Panama: 91.9%)

If you do a little reading about Costa Rica, you will probably come across references to Costa Rica’s ‘free and compulsory’ educational system. Like many things in Costa Rica, ‘free’ and ‘compulsory’ shouldn’t be taken too literally. According to an article published in Al Dia, January 15, 2009, it costs the family about $74 US for each child in elementary school.

Back to school expenses in the United States, clothing in particular, typically run much more than $74 per child. The difference is, of course, affordability. The US Federal minimum wage at this writing is $7.25 per hour. In Costa Rica, it is as low as $1.54 per hour, after benefits are included ($1.06 if not included). So for someone employed at minimum wage in Costa Rica, it takes around 48 hours of work per child using the ‘benefits included’ number and almost 70 hours if you don’t count benefits such as health care. It is a pretty rare family that only has one child in Costa Rica. It is not at all unusual to have 4 school age children. Using the generous ‘with benefits’ number, that means 192 hours of work. Using the less generous figure, 280 hours of work. We won’t even mention the unemployed and those in informal economy, which make up 40% of GDP in Costa Rica (according to the International Monetary Fund).

So what does a student get for $74 dollars? First of all, there are the required supplies. 8 small page 100 sheet notebooks for $10. 4 big size (100 sheet) notebooks for $7. A Spanish English dictionary for $4.50. Glue, scissors and an eraser, $8.50. A backpack, $6.

Then we come to the school uniforms. Required attire. Two blouses or shirts, $14. One pair of pants or a skirt, $15. A pair of (cheap) shoes, $12. (athletic shoes not allowed). Socks, $2. No underwear required, apparently.

In theory, there is aid available to poor people to pay for their children’s school supplies and clothes, but in practice most poor people don’t even bother trying to get this aid as it involves a lot of red tape, waiting in line and is all too often not granted. One friend told me that even when it’s approved, the money isn’t actually paid until well after the beginning of the school year.

So how does this all play out? Well, among the poorer classes, it usually means that a significant percentage of children don’t get past the sixth grade. Good statistical evidence is hard to come by in Costa Rica, and I haven’t had much luck. I do know several families and many grown Ticos who either never got past the sixth grade or at best got in a year of two of high school.

When I was a boy, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, we didn’t pay for paper, pencils, erasers, glue, scissors and all that. My parents could certainly have afforded it. In Costa Rica, the cost is borne by the students’ families, though a large number of them are living in poverty. And what is the payoff for a high school graduate as opposed to a grade school dropout? 40 cents an hour more. If he/she can put in another 4 years at the university, it jumps yet another dollar. These are minimums, of course. Possibly some University grads can have the same person who paid for their education find them a nice job too.

At any rate, when somebody tells you about how education is free for everyone in Costa Rica, take it with a grain of salt.

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  1. Jim & Carol says:

    Well done piece Dan. I'm also curious as to what teachers are paid here. What their qualifications have to be — don't mean gringos down here teaching English — real teachers.

    Jim Lynch

  2. says:

    According to a publication on the website of the Costa Rican Public High School Teachers Union the monthely salary for a teacher with a four year university degree is c320,000 or $565. Subtract the 9% caja taxes (FICA) and that is about $500 per month.

    Teachers who have not yet completed their university degree are paid about $400 a month.

    Ironically an "English Teacher" from the United States with no advanced degree can expect to earn about 5 an hour, and maybe work 30 hours per week, which is about $600 per month.

    Costa Rican public school teachers are required to relocate anywhere within the country the Ministry of Education chooses. The management is a bureaucratic mess, and many teachers go unpaid for months after being relocated or reassigned.

  3. While I guess I can accept your basic premise, maybe – since you appear to be focusing on the negatives of the Costa Rican education system – you might have mentioned some of the other sad realities of this system: the relatively small number of students who actually graduate from a secondary level, the relatively small number who go on to attempt a university degree, the dearth of real jobs for those who do attain a university degree.

  4. says:

    I think the main point of the post is that education isn't as free as it may seem.

    It's also important to point our that the system is very inclusive, and perhaps the best in Central America.

  5. No. Cal. Refugee says:

    jdocoop, I tried to make the points you mentioned. Maybe I didn't make myself clear. Hard data is difficult to come by. I didn't want to go off on a big rant about how the system is stacked in favor of the 'haves' but I feel it is. If I could have come up with some hard data, I would have gotten into it much deeper. I tried some of the government websites, but they were not functioning.

  6. In the US we pay comparitively high property taxes and income taxes, and part of that money pays for school supplies. And even though you might not have kids in school you still pay the tax.

    Regarding teacher salaries in CR, there are a number of private schools in CR, and their salaries are generally higher than those in the public schools.

    • Mickey says:

      Pay for teachers at private schools is $800/month and usually requires a masters degree and fluency in more than one language.