BELMOPAN, Belize — Belize is a small, often overlooked country in Central America bordered by Guatemala and Mexico. The nation is about the size of New Jersey, and it features an incredibly diverse, multi-lingual community. But for all its rich history and interesting people, Belize’s education system faces some unique problems that result in systemic inequality.
Education in Belize is free, technically. But, many costs are left for the families to pay themselves, placing a particular burden on poorer communities. For example, families have to pay for their children’s own transportation to school. In addition, uniforms are typically required, but families have to pay for them themselves. The same goes for schoolbooks, writing materials and food. On top of that, there are also school fees to pay.
Poor families face another expense: the indirect cost that children in school are no longer available to help families around the house, a cost particularly felt in rural communities.
The total cost for families is staggering. For every dollar spent by the government on schools, Belizean families spend another 90 cents. It’s a small wonder then, that only 45 percent of children attend secondary school at all. With costs that exorbitant – and increasing every year – the poor are all too often left out. Education in Belize is far from free, and it is certainly not equal.
Primary school education is compulsory for all children. Families that refuse to send their children are fined. Beyond that, families choose whether they can pay the costs necessary to send their children to school. Ultimately it comes down to weighing the costs versus the benefits.
The most common incentive worldwide for sending a child to school is that it is a gateway to opportunity. A child with an education is perceived as far more likely to escape poverty – or improve his or her social standing – than a child lacking one.
This however, is not entirely the case in Belize. Children who go to primary school do not necessarily end up with higher wages than children who do not. Prospects are not much better for secondary school graduates either.
A child who attended secondary school will make an average of 3.2 percent more than one who did not, which is a modest gain to say the least. Attending a vocational school or university, however, provides an annual rate of return of 11.3 percent or 14.6 percent respectively, a far better outlook.
In recent years, the government has made some significant strides toward reform. In 2008, the Ministry of Education initiated a financial reform of all secondary schools, awarding funds based on the school’s number of students. This sharply contrasted the old system in which funding was based on grants. The previous funding allocation resulted in deep inequality, with private schools in urban areas receiving up to 20 times more funding per capita than schools in more rural or impoverished communities.
Even with these reforms, attendance is only increasing for the wealthier segment of the population. The enrollment gap between rich and poor has even increased between 1999 and 2009 from 2 percent to 7 percent in primary school. And at the secondary level, the wealthy are twice as likely to be enrolled than the poor.
This inequality in education also cuts across race and region. In urban areas, five in 10 kids go to secondary school as opposed to three in ten kids in rural areas. Racial inequality is also a serious concern, and it increases at higher levels of education. Fifty-seven percent of Creole children attend secondary school, while only 40 percent of Mestizo, Mayan and Garifuna children do so. In tertiary-level schooling, attendance of Creole and Garifuna children is more than double that of Mayan children.
Belize has faced serious hardship in the past 50 years. It has broken away from British rule and has since contested United States imperialism. The nation has struggled to regrow its forests after clear-cutting under colonial stewardship, and it has built a stable democratic society composed of vastly different ethnic groups and cultures.
Only in 1991 did Belize gain autonomy over its own premier university, the University College in Belize, from the U.S. Belize has faced major struggles and faces more as it steps up to the task of fostering a more equal and just education system. All people have the right to a public education, rich or poor.