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Costa Rica

Constitutional & Legal Foundations

Private donations and separate municipalities provided the first support for primary schools. The first public school was established in 1807. The Franciscans were the most numerous clergy in Costa Rica; they ran a number of private parochial schools in and around the capital of San Jose, and they converted the indigenous population.

Higher education was developed in Costa Rica just 23 years after independence from Spain. The Casa de Ensenanza de Santo Tomas (School of St. Thomas) opened in April 1814. Its basis was religious education, but the curriculum included mathematics and writing. Ten years later, the government assumed funding of this institution. The school of Santo Tomas was the first primary through higher education school in Costa Rica. The school opened in San Jose to provide an alternative to foreign education. Santo Tomas initially focused on primary education: reading, writing, grammar, and theology. After independence, the emphasis was on secondary education, and three departments were added: theology, jurisprudence, and medicine. In 1843, the school became a university.

The 1823 Declaration of the Supreme Juanta claimed, "the provision of education is the essential foundation of individual happiness and the prosperity of all." Many early government leaders, including the first president of Costa Rica, Jose Maria Castro, were former teachers.

During the administration of Juan Mora Fernandez from 1824 to 1833, the government affirmed the municipal character of primary schooling and assumed the operating responsibilities for the Casa de Ensenanza de Santo Tomas. Additionally, the Escuela de Primeras Lecturas School of literature was located in Cartago, the colonial capital of Costa Rica.

The Law of Bases legislation passed in 1841 placed the control of schools under the state and established five regional departments. This was the first time education in Costa Rica became centralized. In 1843, the University of St. Thomas was created by an executive decree. Legislative Decree Number 11 in 1843 made Casa de Ensenanza the official University of Santo Tomas. The chief of State, Don Jose Afar, and the Minister of State Don Jose Castro Madras, directed it. The University began granting degrees in literature and studies in medicine. In 1843, liberals created the Universidad de Santo Tomas to train future leaders of the country and to stop dependence on the Universidad de San Ramon in Leon, Nicaragua. The Universidad de Santo Tomas was closed 14 years later in 1888 by the congress of Costa Rica because the higher education system had been under the influence of foreign educators who came from Europe. In 1888, the university in Costa Rica was closed by order of President Bernardo Soto, so students now pursued higher education outside the country.

The constitutions of 1844 and 1847 provided specifics for the development of the education system. In 1849, legislation was passed to support the building of schools and to guarantee the right of all Costa Ricans, including females, to receive free primary education. A unified school system was created. The law of 1852 repealed the exclusive role that the Catholic Church had played in education. It made education independent of the church and expelled Jesuits from Costa Rica.

In 1853, a conservative government transformed the Universidad de Santo Tomas into a Pontifical University under the direction of Pope Pius IX. The Universidad de San Carlos in Guatemala then took the place of the Universidad de San Ramon for professional education. In the 1860s, most students seeking higher education attended European universities. The constitution of 1869 established free compulsory public education.

After the closing of the University of St. Thomas in 1888, there were no opportunities for university education within Costa Rica until the University of Costa Rica was established in 1940. During this period, Costa Rican students attended universities in Nicaragua, Guatemala, South America, and Europe.

Santo Tomas University closed in 1888, just 45 years after opening when Fernandez decided to focus on secondary school education. Students who earned a bachillerato at the end of their secondary schooling had a degree that was comparable to two years of college. The law school continued, however, and during the next 50 years, schools were also established for the fine arts, pharmacy, education, and agriculture. Another university was not established in Costa Rica until 1940 when the University of Costa Rica was founded. Despite these achievements, 70 percent of the population remained illiterate at the end of the nineteenth century.

Reforms from 1882 to 1888, called the "Liberal Laws," prohibited priests from attacking public education because it was secular in nature. The General Law of Common Education passed in February 1886 supported the creation of an army of teachers to meet educational needs. Laws were drafted in 1899 to define the teacher's role in Costa Rica.

An 1890 decree to dissolve the university was nullified. The legislative assembly decided instead to reestablish the university, but steps to reopen it were not taken. In 1895, a school of pharmacy was opened, then a school of fine arts in 1897, and a normal school in 1914.

The influence of Latin American Marxist thinkers called for higher public education that was free. The Reform of Cordoba in 1918 sought to open universities to an emerging middle class. Until Cordoba, the Napoleonic University model, a collection of independent professional schools, had dominated higher education in Costa Rica.

A national school of agriculture opened in the suburbs of San Jose in 1926. This site would become the main campus of the University of Costa Rica. In 1940, President Calderon's administration created the University of Costa Rica. The normal school, or teacher-training college, became the school of education. In 1942, a school of dentistry was added, and in 1960, a school of medicine opened. The constitution of 1949, as well as recent amendments, guaranteed university autonomy and state funding for state educational institutions.

The new University of Costa Rica opened in March 1941 with schools of law, engineering, and pharmacology. It later incorporated the school of education and became the University of Costa Rica (UCR). UCR was the only institution of its kind in the country for 32 years until the Technology Institute was created in 1972. The Technological Institute, Universidad Nacional (UNNA), and the Universidad Estatal a Distancia (UNED) were founded in 1971, 1973, and 1977, respectively.

In the 1970s, reform movements in education worked to transform the University of Costa Rica from an elite institution to an open one. The purpose of this reform was to offer all people equal opportunity to access higher education. Within 10 years, the percentage of students pursuing higher education increased from 8 percent of the population to 27 percent. In the interests of democratizing higher education in Costa Rica, three community colleges were also founded in the 1970s.

Law established the University of Costa Rica in 1940. The social Christian and social democratic governments of the 1940s sought to extend social benefits to all Costa Ricans. Social benefits included a public university, national health insurance program, and abolition of the army. When UCR opened in 1941, it consisted of the professional schools of agriculture, fine arts, law, and pharmacology, as well as a normal school. New academic units of philosophy, letters, and engineering were added within a few years. In the constitution of 1949, approved after the revolution of 1948, article 77 made primary and secondary education free and primary education compulsory. A peaceful coup in 1948 by Jose Figueres abolished the army and gave women the right to vote. In the 1970s, student-led, anti-imperialist protests began.


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