The wave of school seizures seemed to be fading out in midweek but the conflict should send alarm-bells ringing, both over the occupations and City Hall's response to it with neither side giving much thought to dialogue within a generally polarised context.
Perhaps most to be deplored is that public education should be singled out for these assaults because it is already bearing the brunt of the general educational crisis and because a solid public education system cutting across class lines was a key factor in Argentina’s high world rankings in the past and continues to be a gateway to development today, with various Asian countries showing the way.
City Hall was thus right to take seriously this crisis of a score of public schools being occupied by students but its kneejerk hawkish response was a major error with City Education Minister Soledad Acuña failing to open up any serious discussion of the student demands, neither the more legitimate claims for her to take on board nor the weaknesses of their case for her to criticise. While some coverage of the protest virtually reduced the complaints to the dubious quality of cheese or ham sandwiches, the volunteering and work experience programmes would seem to offer considerable room for improvement, in many cases resigning youth to a future of flipping hamburgers instead of entering 21st century technology. But amid all these student complaints about school meals, buildings, etc., whether good or bad, the quality of the education itself never really entered into discussion when one might imagine that this would be absolutely central to any educational protest with plenty to discuss there, also including private schooling.
Yet instead of picking up this point, Acuña opted for the primitive reaction of turning the heat on the parents (who cannot choose their children any more than children can choose their parents), attempting to make them pay the costs of the protest (which City Hall estimated at a daily six million pesos) and even sending the police to front doors – all quite unsavoury and uncomfortable. Acuña could also have sought to pin the responsibility on school authorities and teachers but perhaps she found parents the path of least resistance instead of taking on the teacher unions. There might also be a subtler political subtext to her primitive reaction to be found in the complexities of the opposition coalition – since she is the minister of moderate City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, she might feel obliged to overcook the hard line in order not to lend ammunition to the opposition hawks, never mind the libertarians.
In an ideal world the education system should not be made a political battleground although this should not be understood as dictating an absence of politics – students should be politically engaged, as well as challenged and taught that there is another way. Deploring education being transformed into a political battleground cuts both ways – it would be naïve in the extreme to think that Acuña's accusations of Kirchnerite and La Cámpora mischief lurking behind all this are totally unfounded even if she seems to mirror their militancy in many ways. One might well ask why only public schools in the City of Buenos Aires are uniquely flawed and not in the Province of Buenos Aires, not to mention other mostly Peronist provinces. And nor can the student vandalism in occupied schools be condoned.
The bottom line is the very simple fact that schools need to be open in order for education to continue and this is already good reason to deplore the occupations (especially after so many months lost to the coronavirus pandemic), but there are also right and wrong ways of addressing both our critics and our supporters and of responding to crisis. Mayor Rodríguez Larreta, who has ultimate responsibility for the ministers in his Cabinet and ambitions to win the presidency, should consider carefully what lessons he wants to teach Argentina’s next generation.