Brazil: School system dependency on electoral volatility

Written by Mayeda Tayyab

In Brazil, the right to free public education at any level is granted by the Federal Constitution. The responsibility of providing free public education thus falls under the federal system of government, at three levels – including the federal, individual states and municipality governments- thus decentralising education in Brazil. This system has led to increased corruption and misue of resources and funding by the political parties in charge for their own interests.

Decentralisation and corruption

Due to decentralisation, the quality of primary public education in Brazil has been negatively impacted. Since the majority of schools are managed by the municipal governments (5,570 different municipalities to be precise), managing and improving quality of education is much harder.

Primary education in Brazil is funded through FUNDEB (Fund for the Maintenance and Development of Basic Education). The federal government supplements funds which are then distributed by each state among its municipalities. Mayors have much freedom in deciding how these funds are spent, creating an opportunity for misuse of resources. 

Unlike other countries where the change in political party after general elections leads to change in top civil service positions, in Brazil this change trickles down to the municipality governments – reshaping local bureaucracy. This system has a huge impact on the quality of public education in Brazil. Because educational funding is in the hands of municipalities and under the control of mayors, the reshaping of local governments with general elections leads to the use of these public funds and resources by the political parties in charge to serve their own purposes.

Furthermore, the public education sector under municipalities is one of the biggest employers in Brazil. These jobs are also severely misused by corrupt politicians to reward the supporters of their political parties either as rewards or bribes. In most Brazilian municipalities, principles are nominated by politicians, which contributes to the politicisation of education in Brazil.

Moreover, FUNDEB funds make an important part of the poor and small municipalities, coupled with the low monitoring of these funds, it creates the perfect opportunity to carry out political corruption at the municipal level. According to the audits conducted by the Federal Government Controller’s Office (CGU) between 2001 and 2003, 13% to 55% of FUNDEB’s total budget was lost due to corruption (Transparencia Brasil 2005).

Corruption in Brazil is not limited to the municipal level. National and international studies show that corruption in handling of public funds for education has damaged the quality of education. According to Ferraz, Finan and Moreira (2012), approximately 60% of the corruption cases in Brazil are related to the education and health sector. In June 2022, Brazil’s education minister, Milton Ribeiro, was arrested on corruption charges involving crimes such as abuse of power and peddling. This was the third education minister that resigned from his post under President Bolsonaro, who promised to tackle corruption during his term in office.

Hence, decentralisation and politicisation of the education system in Brazil has led to serious corruption in the sector, leading to a decrease in the quality of education and resources.

Budget cuts

In 2022, President Bolsonaro cut a budget of 450 million euros from federal universities calling such educational institutions leftists breeding grounds. This led to huge demonstrations against the cuts across the country and created a dire situation for the higher education sector in Brazil, seriously affecting the functioning of universities due to difficulties in paying the staff.

Budget cuts in funding for universities has also led to declining infrastructure of institutions, damaged buildings, broken furniture, leaks and broken elevators. Universities also cannot afford to pay cleaning staff, leading to neglect of educational spaces. Apart from the physical damage to universities, at the start of the Covid pandemic, thousands of research grants were suspended, putting the entire higher education system in danger.


Many young people in Brazil are dropping out of primary education due to the lack of motivation, low quality of teaching and syllabus, or to enter the workforce early to provide for their families. The decentralised structure of education has led to these shortcoming in the quality of education and teaching, impacting the motivation of students to continue with their studies.

While public education makes up for the majority of the primary and secondary education, private education tackles precedence at university level. This has led to a disparity between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. While students from privileged families opt for private higher education institutions, student finance funding has opened doors for students from poorer backgrounds to also join these institutions, although their number remains low.

Due to the lack of a one central system being responsible for public education coupled with the politicisation of education and corruption in this sector, Brazil’s education system – as it currently stands, is under the complete power of the politicians and political parties in charge. This issue cannot be overcome unless education is completely separated from the politically motivated institutions and managed through a system and group of people who are hired solely for their skills in the education sector.


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