Venezuela's Education Lesson
By Dan Lips
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has used the power of the state
to nationalize the oil industry, squash the independent news media,
and control the electoral process. Seizing control of the country's
public and private schools is next on his agenda.
Chavez recently announced plans for a new "Bolivarian"
curriculum for all of Venezuela's schools. Criticizing the old
school model as "colonial, capitalist, and soul-destroying," Chavez
promised a new model: "We want to create our own ideology
collectively." Education Minister Adan Chavez - Hugo's brother -
will develop the curriculum. The new textbooks, Adan promised, will
be geared to educate "the new citizen."
Private schools will also be forced to embrace the new
curriculum. "Society cannot allow the private sector to do whatever
it wants," Chavez explained. "The state has to intervene. They
should be subordinate to the constitution and the national
education plan." Schools that don't comply will be closed or
Exactly what the new curriculum will contain remains unclear,
but one can guess it will closely follow Chavez's leftist ideology.
The Associated Press recently obtained a copy of a Venezuelan
university curriculum; it consisted of required readings from Karl
Marx and Fidel Castro and history lessons praising the murderous
revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Elementary and high school
students can probably expect something similar.
Chavez's move follows in the tradition of the Soviet Union and
Nazi Germany, which used schools to shape children's minds to
conform with their vision for society. Totalitarian regimes
recognize that education is a powerful tool for controlling the
Americans witnessing Venezuela's drift toward totalitarianism
should consider how fortunate we are to live in a free society. Yet
we should also take a moment to evaluate our own public education
system and consider the role that government plays in educating the
Here in the United States, roughly nine out of ten children
attend government-run public schools. According to the National
Center for Education Statistics, 74 percent of children attend
public schools that they are assigned to by the government. For
most American children, important decisions about how they will be
educated are largely decided by government officials, not their
Consider the problems that government control of education can
cause. It can force schools to choose sides in the culture wars.
Reasonable people often disagree on how to handle controversial
curriculum decisions, such as sex education, American history, or
evolution. Choosing sides, which public schools often have to do,
is divisive. Worse, many parents are helplessly left to send their
child to a school that teaches values at odds with their own.
Another problem is the lack of quality instruction in many
schools. Because most parents have little choice but to enroll
their child in the government-assigned school, there are few
consequences for schools that fail to educate their students. The
result is that many children attend schools with a poor track
record of successfully teaching basic subjects like reading and
Of course, some American children are fortunate to have
alternatives to the government-run public school system. Six
million kids are enrolled in private schools. More than a million
children are taught at home. Parents and teachers would protest in
the streets if the U.S. government followed Venezuela and seized
control of private schools and forced all children into a
government-run school system.
In recent years, a growing number of kids are being allowed to
use their share of public-funding for education to attend a school
of their parents' choice. Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., now
have programs to help families choose private schools for their
children. And many states and school districts now offer more
choice within the public school system through open enrollment
policies or strong charter school laws.
But millions of children still lack the opportunity to attend a
school of their parents' choice. If all parents were able to pick
their children's school, schools would have to offer quality
services to attract students. The best schools and teachers would
thrive and become models for other schools; low-performing schools
would be shuttered and replaced. Controversial issues wouldn't have
to be decided by government, since parents would have the ultimate
say in how their children are taught.
Universal school choice would address the problems of
government-run education. And we can only begin to imagine what
types of innovative schools and learning models could be possible
if all parents had the power to decide how their children are
Of course, the troubling news out of Venezuela should remind all
Americans that we are fortunate to live in free society. But we
shouldn't forget that we have a long way to go before our education
system is truly free.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst
at the Heritage Foundation.