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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.

Brazil's 'educational apartheid' cements inequality early in life

Brazilian government initiatives now bring schooling to the masses, but the country's deep racial divide has only been reinforced.

doesn’t even know that Brasilia is her nation’s capital. She’s also unfamiliar with the botanical garden, the theaters and the art galleries of Rio, one of the world’s great cities, because no one at her school ever bothers to organize field trips.

A little later, Ingrid and her friends excuse themselves. It turns out four of their nine teachers blew off work today so the students have decided to go home.   

One of the few professors who does show up is Lenice Loiola. She tries to inspire students like Ingrid to take on the world. But she suspects many of her pupils will go on to become teenaged welfare mothers or gang members.

Given the barriers to deep learning at the nation's public schools, Loiola has come to a stark conclusion: “Brazil,” she says, “wants its poor people to remain ignorant.”

For much of the nation’s history, that was the quasi-official policy.

Organized as a slave colony for Portugal, Brazil imported as many as 3 million Africans captives to labor in mines and on sugar cane plantations. Brazil was the last nation in the hemisphere to abolish slavery — in 1888 — and when it did there was little effort to educate black, Indian and mixed-blood Brazilians who made up the majority of the population.

Many European immigrants to southern Brazil valued education. But the country’s public schools were so bad that they took it upon themselves to found their own private and religious schools. The concept of universal public education was ignored.

“Argentina and Chile and other countries were promoting universal education back in the 19th century but in Brazil you had nothing like that,” Simon Schwartzman, a Rio-based political analyst, told GlobalPost. “Even in the 1950s, half of all Brazilians were illiterate.”

During the country’s military dictatorship that lasted from 1964-85, Brazil’s leaders focused on building highways, ports and other infrastructure rather than schools. The drive to educate all Brazilians finally took hold in the 1990s and became a top priority following the 2002 election of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Ironically, Lula, a former shoeshine boy who dropped out after fourth grade, was one of Brazil’s least educated presidents. Yet he became an inspiration for the underclass, a yes-we-can example of upward mobility.

Lula doubled per-student spending on education and introduced Bolsa Familia, a program that provides monthly cash stipends to poor families who keep their children in school. Today, according to UNESCO, 95 percent of Brazilian children, aged 7-14, have access to primary and middle school education. 

In a 2010 speech shortly before he stepped down following two terms in office, Lula declared: “I want every child to study much more than I could, much more.”

Failing class                                            

Lucas Cherpe de Abreu, 11, and his mother Andrea Cavalcante de Abreu, 28, in the living room of their house in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro. Lucas likes playing games on his tablet.
(Marizilda Cruppe/GlobalPost)

As if cramming for a final exam after a semester of sloth, Brazil under Lula and his successor, President Dilma Rousseff, has been in a headlong rush to make up for past inaction by bringing education to the masses. But turning such a large ship of state has proven to be extremely difficult.

Indeed, Brazil’s public education system now appears to have grown too big too fast and experts say that educational quality has suffered.

For starters, there aren’t enough buildings to hold all the new students. Many schools operate on a series of four-and-a-half-hour shifts, with the first students arriving at 7 am and last departing at 10 pm. Classrooms are sometimes jammed with 40 or more students. At the Colegio Teresiano and other private schools, classrooms are often half that size.

Many students are being taught by less-qualified professors because the best and brightest are no longer interested in working at public schools. Costin cited one recent study showing that 60 percent of Brazil’s public school teachers were not in the habit of reading books.

Some policies have just plain backfired. For instance, to encourage underperforming kids to stay in school, the Rio city government issued a no-fail policy for elementary school. But as the lagging students advanced, the result was 28,000 illiterate fourth, fifth and sixth graders, Constin said.

Part of the problem is generational. Universal public education is so new that many families have little notion of its value while illiterate parents, who never went to school, may find it impossible to help their kids with homework, Schwartzman says.

This will likely change with time. But for now, Brazil continues to rank near the bottom of international student surveys.

In 2010, for example, students from 65 nations took part in the Program for International Student Assessment. Brazilian students ranked 53rd in reading and science and 57th in math

All of this has hastened the ongoing flight of tax-paying middle and upper class families to private schools and produced a vicious circle because their exodus has reduced the pressure on elected officials to improve public education. By contrast, impoverished Brazilians pay no income taxes and that makes them less likely to hold officials accountable for decrepit public schools, Schwartzman said.

“Education is supposed to provide equal opportunities for all,” Costin says. “But this concept is turning into a myth, a utopia.”

Brazil’s slow and frustrating effort to reduce inequality through education and other means stands as a cautionary tale for the United States. As Castañeda points out, “Once inequality becomes entrenched, reversing it becomes incredibly difficult.”

And if its middle class withers, what might the United States look like? The answer, Castañeda says, is “what Latin America used to be, and in some ways still struggles to stop being.”

Back at the Colegio Teresiano, Brazilian journalist Patricia Lopes momentarily draws a blank when asked what she’d do if she lacked the wherewithal to send Clara, her freckle-faced six-year-old, to this private Roman Catholic school. Rather than risk sending Clara to a public school, Lopes finally replies, her family would likely leave the country.

“I look at my child and I know she will have a good future. She will be able to go to college and maybe become a doctor or a lawyer,” Lopes said. “But most kids in Brazil are badly educated and have no future. I feel bad about that.”

Note: The photograph featured in The Great Divide series art is from Sao Paulo, Brazil, by photographer Tuca Vieira.