Mexico City's "abuse-meter" tracks waste of education funds
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Mexico City's "abuse-meter" tracks waste of education funds

What if you could see exactly how much money your country’s government had “lost” from the national education budget — and watch it tick away by the minute, or even the second? One Mexican organization is trying to do exactly that in the hope that it will spur Mexicans to turn a more critical eye on their government’s spending.

In an August 20 column in the Miami Herald, Argentine columnist Andrés Oppenheimer wrote of a Mexican education advocacy group that has taken things to the next level by mounting an “abuse-meter” on a busy Mexico City thoroughfare to bring public attention to the waste of federal education funds.

According to Mexicanos Primero, the advocacy group responsible for the so-called abusómetro, almost $3 billion from the annual federal education budget is not being spent on costs directly related to education. After discovering this gap through a study of Mexico’s census numbers, Mexicanos Primero decided to take bold action — in the form of setting up an electronic dashboard display on the capital’s hectic Periférico Sur avenue that shows drivers and passersby how much of that money is being spent by the government, broken down per day, hour and minute.

Oppenheimer spoke with Claudio X. González, president of Mexicanos Primero, who said that the $3 billion of unaccounted-for funds go toward salaries for 298,000 people, equivalent to 13 percent of Mexico’s elementary and high school teachers. These people are described as teachers in public records, but the vast majority of them do not actually work as teachers.

Mexicanos Primeros says that almost 115,000 of the people are actually receiving checks for teachers who have died or retired, while 113,259 receive salaries for “teaching” at schools where nobody recognizes their name. Another 70,000 are what are know as “commissioned” teachers or “aviators,” meaning they are on temporary assignment to administrative or political positions within teachers unions.

“We need to free those $3 billion in irregular or illegal funds, and spend them to improve our schools’ infrastructure, train our teachers and principals, and give scholarships to our young people,” González told Oppenheimer.

The organization released additional findings about lack of services in Mexico’s schools, revealing that 11 percent of schools have insufficient bathroom facilities (almost half of those schools serve indigenous communities), while 31 percent of schools do not have water, with more than half of them located in the state of Chiapas.

Spending vs. results

The Mexico example is an extreme case — and the “abuse-meter” an equally extreme reaction — but the case brings attention to the issue of ballooning education budgets in countries that are not seeing noticeable improvement in student test scores or global competitiveness, despite government promises to do exactly that.

Oppenheimer’s column makes an important comparison between the inflated education budgets of major Latin American economies like Mexico, Argentina and Brazil — which score poorly on international standardized tests — and their Asian counterparts like China and Singapore, which spend comparatively less on education yet score higher on many indicators.

According to the World Bank, Latin America’s three largest economies — Argentina, Brazil and Mexico — all spend more than the global average of 5 percent of total GDP on education. The most recent data for Argentina, from 2011, had eduction spending as a whopping 6.3 percent of the country’s GDP. Mexico and Brazil had similar numbers, with Mexico’s spending at 5.2 percent in the same year, and Brazil’s at 5.8 as of 2010.

In contrast, Japan and Singapore, two of the highest-scoring countries on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, had modest education spending, with Japan devoting 3.9 percent of GDP to education as of 2012, and Singapore spending just 3 percent last year.

The PISA tests, administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, offer a global comparison of  learning and aptitude in reading, science and math, testing more than 510,000 students in 65 different economies. In the most recent tests, from 2012, China, Singapore, Japan and Korea dominated across the board, sharing the top five positions in all three areas.

High-spending Argentina, meanwhile, came in at 59th overall, with Brazil just above it at 58 and Mexico a few spots higher at 53 — all scoring well below the global average, despite their large education budgets. These nations were joined near the bottom by other neighboring countries, including Uruguay (55), Costa Rica (56), Colombia (62) and Peru in last place on the list at 65. Chile, in 51st place, was Latin America’s highest-ranking country.

Maybe, as Oppenheimer suggests, more Latin American countries could use an abusómetro, or some other type of visible way to keep governments accountable for what they say they are spending on the country’s future via education. Or maybe these nations need to think about prioritizing quality over quantity, and how funding could best go toward actually improving education and global competitiveness, rather than just writing big checks — sometimes to teachers who don’t even exist.