people rally for Lula

Brazil election puts fate of public education in the spotlight 

In the runoff election in Brazil, there are two very different visions for the future of public education. Incumbent Jair Bolsonaro has steadily been making cuts. While his challenger, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, vows to expand it. That’s what he did when he ran the country in the 2000s, and in northeastern Brazil, voters feel their very livelihoods depend on his return.  

The World

Last Friday, tens of thousands were in the streets of Recife, Brazil. It was a sea of red — the color of presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers Party.

Michael Fox/The World

Last Friday, tens of thousands were in the streets of Recife, Brazil. It was a sea of red — the color of presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers Party. The former president known simply as “Lula” was in town for a campaign rally, and his supporters were ecstatic.

They chanted and sang. The march extended for blocks, winding across town. This is Lula country — the state he was born in, Pernambuco. And locals here voted overwhelmingly for him in the first round: 66.7% for Lula versus 27% for President Jair Bolsonaro across northeastern Brazil.

Priscila Marinho was among those who supported Lula.

“I have benefited directly from the public university,” she said. “I also did a master’s, and I had this opportunity because of the Lula government.”

poster for Lula

In the Oct. 30 runoff election in Brazil, there are two very different visions for the future of public education. Incumbent Jair Bolsonaro has steadily been making cuts, while his challenger, Lula, vows to expand it. A Lula poster in Brazil is shown here.

Credit:

Michael Fox/The World

“Without a doubt,” said Marinho, who is young and Black, “Black youth are here marching to guarantee that the next generations have their rights to education preserved.”

In the Oct. 30 runoff election in Brazil, there are two very different visions for the future of public education. Incumbent Jair Bolsonaro has steadily been making cuts while his challenger, Lula, vows to expand it. That’s what he did when he ran the country in the 2000s, and in northeastern Brazil, voters feel their very livelihoods depend on his return.

Lula’s legacy for Brazil’s education system runs deep. When he ran the country from 2003 to 2010, he created nearly 200 private and federal university systems and campuses. The number of students nearly doubled, and access for people of color expanded dramatically. By 2011, 70% of public universities had affirmative action programs. Experts say that Lula's policies were a huge success, particularly in northeastern Brazil.

Experts say that Lula's policies were a huge success, particularly in northeastern Brazil, a region with a larger Black population than elsewhere in the country, where residents had largely lacked the ability to access higher education. 

Lula supporters hold a banner

People on the streets of Recife, Brazil, rally for presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers Party. 

Credit:

Michael Fox/The World

“For those who had never had access to university education before, it was really important,” said Amazonas Federal University professor Gisele Costa. “If you have a master’s or a doctorate, that’s like a title of nobility for a population that’s 29% functionally illiterate.”

By contrast, Bolsonaro has long fought with the country’s university system. His first year in office, he rolled out major funding cuts and a proposed education reform that sparked some of the largest student protests against his government. Funding cuts have continued throughout his presidency. Last year, his then Minister of Education Milton Ribeiro said that higher education should be scaled back.

“Universities should be for the few, not for everyone,” he said. "We have too many engineers and lawyers driving Uber, because they can’t get a job in their area.”

Bolsonaro has also criticized Brazil's education system for having a liberal bias. He’s tried to reign that in by replacing some federal university directors and transforming more than a 100 high schools into civic-military academies.

people rally for Lula

Last Friday, tens of thousands were in the streets of Recife, Brazil. It was a sea of red — the color of presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers Party. The former president known simply as “Lula” was in town for a campaign rally, and his supporters were ecstatic.

Credit:

Michael Fox/The World

Right now, he’s backing a bill in the Senate that would authorize homeschooling, a move welcomed by his evangelical Christian base.

Bolsonaro supporters have also called for the return of the civic-moral education classes that were mandatory under Brazil’s military dictatorship, as a guest argues on the conservative “Collab Podcast.”

But people on the streets of Recife say that’s not the direction they want for their country.

“We’ve seen what Lula can do. How the lives of the people improved,” university professor Valeria Silva said. “Today, going with Lula again means picking up his development project so that people have education and health and can get out of this situation of hunger and poverty.”

Hunger and poverty have indeed been rising in northeast Brazil, which is one reason people here voted nearly 2 1/2 times more for Lula than Bolsonaro in the first round of the election.

They hope they can lift him to victory again in the second round on Oct. 30.

Related: ‘It will be a challenge’: Lula, Bolsonaro head to runoffs in tight Brazil elections

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