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Constitutional & Legal Foundations

The Conservative Party ended the Liberal Party's domination of the federal government in 1882 with the election of Rafael Nuñez. After sitting out two years as required by the Constitution of 1863, Nuñez regained the presidency and called a convention to draft a new constitution. Adopted in 1886, this constitution, which remained in effect until 1991, offered free elementary education to any child who wanted it. However, the constitution reversed the 1870 law that made such elementary education compulsory. At the same time, the constitution declared Colombia a republic and recognized the Catholic Church as the national church. The following year, the government entered the Concordat of 1887, requiring that all public education be done in accordance with the Roman Catholic religion. As result, clergy could approve school texts, determine the curriculum, and appoint teachers (Bushnell, Hanson).

In 1903, the central government took responsibility for establishing a national system of education with the passage of the Organic Law of Public Education, which made education free but not compulsory. Together with its regulating decree of 1904, the Organic Law set up a system of national inspection, divided schools into elementary and secondary levels, and established professional, industrial, and artistic branches. Although the law of 1903 placed education under the control of the states, it gave the power to set policy for all public, private, state, and national schools to the Ministry of Education. Other levels of government took different responsibilities. For example, states had to pay teacher salaries while municipalities had to construct and furnish the schools. Unfortunately, the law perpetuated discrepancies between urban and rural education by ordering cities to provide six years of schooling and requiring rural areas to provide only three (Hanson).

In 1927, the Conservative government of Colombia made education compulsory, but did not provide funds to make this possible. Consequently, public education remained unavailable for most Colombians even though it was supposed to be free and compulsory. As a result, in 1930, most Colombians lacked basic literacy skills (Hanson; Bushnell).

With the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Conservative Party lost control of national politics. The Liberal candidate, Alfonso López Pumarejo, became president in 1934, and he increased spending on schools and rural roadways. To increase the status of teachers, López Pumarejo's Liberal government established registries, required high school teachers to have university degrees, and set up national salary scales for teachers. In 1936, the Liberal government adopted a law stating that neither race nor religion was an adequate reason to deny students admission to schools (Bushnell; Hanson).

In his most controversial act, López Pumarejo changed the constitution to remove the Catholic Church as the final authority on permissible practices in schools. Enacted in 1936, these amendments enabled the Colombian Ministry of Education to encourage coed education, even though Pope Pius XI urged Catholics to avoid this practice. At the same time, the Ministry of Education invited liberal humanist scholars from Europe to come to Colombia. In addition, while the Conservative government had mandated religious training in the public schools, the Liberal Party turned schools toward patriotic education. As a result, instructional materials and programs emphasized the patriotic duties of citizens, the accomplishments of traditional heroes, and the value of national goals instead of spiritual development. In reaction, Conservatives complained that the Liberal administration assaulted moral and religious values (Bushnell; Hanson).

The controversy over religion and education grew into the struggles known as the Violencia (The Violence). During the election of 1946, dissension split the Liberal Party. Marino Ospina Pérez, a Conservative Party member, won the presidential election. Two years later, a leader of the Liberal party was shot and killed. Liberals blamed Conservatives for the assassination and riots broke out. According to some estimates, the fighting claimed the lives of 300,000 people. Ironically, as the death rate rose, so did the economy—the rate of industrial output increased 9 percent per year from 1945 to 1955 (Bushnell; Hanson).

In 1957, a military junta took control of the federal government. To bring peace, they adopted a set of mathematical guidelines to the Constitution that required the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party to share all elective and appointive offices. According to this agreement, the two parties alternated control of the presidency. Although criticized for being undemocratic, these rules created a coalition known as the National Front that ended the Violencia. Other violent outbreaks would occur in Colombia, such as the drug war of the 1980s, but the killings did not reach the levels of the 1940s and 1950s (Bushnell).

During the 1980s, the governor of each of the country's departments (equivalent to a U.S. state) served as the chief administrative officer of his or her department and controlled all the educational matters in that department. Each governor appointed a secretary of education, who directed the schools in his or her department and reported to the governor. In 1986, there were about 32,000 such schools in the different departments, which at the time numbered 22. On the national level, the president appointed a minister of education to oversee national schools, of which there were about 500, and private schools, of which there were about 8,000. At the same time, the president appointed the governors (Hanson).

In 1991, Colombia approved a new constitution. Although the constitution declared Colombia to be a unitary republic, it added that it was decentralized, with territorial entities remaining autonomous, democratic, participatory, and pluralist. In accord with the goal of making the country more open to popular participation in local affairs, the new constitution introduced the popular election of departmental governors. Under the previous constitution, the national president appointed the governors. The constitution of 1991 required proportional representation when electing members of upper house of the Congress. Among the other provisions, the constitution of 1991 made education compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 15 years and recommended one year of pre-kindergarten training. It recommended other changes, such as bilingual education for communities where the population spoke an indigenous language, and it repeated the requirement that all teachers had to be professionally trained (Hanson; Bushnell).

Reinforcing the growing secular influences in Colombia, the new constitution eliminated any reference to Catholicism as the national religion. It specifically placed all religious denominations on equal legal footing, and it made divorce subject to civil law, thereby making civil divorce legal (Bushnell). Unfortunately, it is unclear what effect this change in religious policy will have on educational matters. For example, in 1936, the government amended the constitution by removing the authority of the Catholic Church in educational matters. However, as late as 1971, critics had complained that, although the Ministry of Education was most responsible for education in the country's departments, the ministry could not regulate such things as private school tuition because these schools were Catholic. In the church dioceses bishops ensured that the Catholic faith was taught in public schools and that lessons did not contradict the Church's magesterium. The bishops approved religion textbooks adopted by elementary and high schools, and the archbishop of Bogotá decided what religion texts the universities used. If a religion teacher ignored a bishop's requirements the bishop could remove the teacher from his or her position (Londoño).

The practice of religious control of the schools continues despite constitutional changes because the Catholic Church has more influence in Colombia than in any other country in the Western Hemisphere. In Colombia, clerics wield their power informally through interpersonal relations. Consequently, though the constitution of 1991 sought to establish distance between the government and the church, church officials continued to appear in public forums offering their blessings to official acts. Thus, while private schools may have had to adjust to government regulations and conform to courses of study prescribed by the Ministry of Education, Catholic bishops unofficially retained authority over such matters in the public school (Williams and Guerrieri).

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceColombia - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education