Education, Society

The Hidden Scandal: Corruption in the Brazilian Public Education System


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On October 2, 2009, Brazil was announced the winner of the 2016 Summer Olympic bid in Copenhagen, Denmark.

President Lula, holding a handkerchief over his watering eyes, famously wept tears of joy, later proclaiming, “The world has recognized that the time has come for Brazil.”

Brazil is the first South American country to win an Olympic bid, and consistent social and economic growth has helped make this victory possible. From 1980 to present, Brazil’s Human Development Index has increased dramatically from low human development at 0.547 to high with 0.755. The mean years of schooling has more than quadrupled since the mid-80’s, allowing access to education for millions more Brazilians than was previously possible.

Despite the country’s relative economic and social success in the past thirty years, a myriad of issues still plague the upward development of Brazil. One such issue has caste an international spotlight on Brazil, and that is none other than systematic and rampant corruption.

Operation Lava Jato, the federal investigation of corruption allegations from state-owned oil company, Petrobras, has received worldwide publicity. The New York Times estimates that bribes total over 3 billion USD, and news sources note the investigation has resulted in at least 80 individual charges, 117 indictments, and 13 criminal cases with companies. Media coverage has only intensified in scrutiny as allegations purport that Brazilian police involved in Operation Lava Jato plan to investigate over 10 billion USD in corrupt construction contracts linked to Olympic infrastructure. In total, the amount of money lost connected to Petrobras alone exceeds the 2014 GDP of Liberia, and while the world scrupulously watches the scandal unfold, corruption of another kind remains hidden.

In August 2015, Lidiane Leite da Silva—ex-mayor of Bom Jardim, a rural northeastern municipality—fled her mayoral post after allegations of embezzling 4 million USD in educational funds earmarked for school meals and infrastructure. Leite is notorious for governing Bom Jardim from a distance in the capital of São Luis by using Whatsapp to communicate with staff. Parents consistently stated their children did not receive school meals while Leite was in office, leaving children without an important source of daily sustenance for many in rural areas. Instead, Leite flaunted her wealth on Instagram as she used public finances for personal gain at the expense of children obtaining resources for an adequate, accessible education.

Escolas, Bom Jardim, Maranhão
Photo Credit: BBC

Education became dramatically more accessible after 1998 with the establishment of FUNDEF, the Fund for Maintenance and Development of Basic Education and the Valorization of Educational Professionals. Given vast socioeconomic differences between the 26 Brazilian states, the federal government established a pool of funds to equalize educational expenditures nationwide and establish spending minimums. States contribute three-fifths of state revenues to the federal government, and money is redistributed back to municipalities based on need.

Unfortunately, oversight and transparency councils that monitor education spending are ineffective, poorly resourced, and frequently captured by local politicians. A lack of accountability in public education spending allows politicians like Leite to easily embezzle funds, and at least four corruption scandals demonstrate the frequency of corruption occurring within the Brazilian public education system.

São Paulo, Bahia, Amapá, and Maranhão are four states, among others, that have been federally investigated by police and the Comptroller General of the Union, the federal anti-corruption branch, for widespread corruption of educational funds from 2007 to present. Examination of the scandals using local media sources and police documents reveals total losses of roughly 83 million USD. With this money, 103, 750 additional primary school students could have enrolled in school using 2010 federal minimum spending estimates and urban school construction plans. This equates to closing roughly 133 medium size urban primary schools for one year due to these four corruption scandals alone. The scandals vary in severity and dollar amount from 15 million in Bahia and 59 million in Amapá; however, one aspect they all have in common is the potential to decrease educational attainment for children studying in municipalities where corruption is present.

Of the four analyzed states, there is a strong correlation between students studying in areas where corruption occurs and underperformance in schools. Analysis using Brazilian Ministry of Education data shows that of the 31 named municipalities affected by corruption in schools, 68% of the time students did not meet their educational goals.[1] With millions of dollars being siphoned off to public officials for private gain, corruption in education puts children at the risk of being denied access to educational resources that help support their human development. Harkening back to Brazil’s social and economic growth, the government will need to address corruption scandals in all sectors of Brazilian society if it wishes to continue to support the full potential of its citizen base. Ensuring all educational investments reach students and schools and not corrupted public officials is a solid first step to reforming a public education system plagued with teacher dissatisfaction and high drop out rates.

A public education sector permeated with corruption has left the country in a difficult situation. Brazil is equally as successful as it is troubled. From one angle, the world praises Brazil for its rapid development and international undertaking to host the Olympics. From another, international media attention and investigations surrounding Petrobras and mega-events expose corruption scandals, leaving others hidden. While necessary measures must be addressed to resolve publicized corruption scandals, corruption in the Brazilian public education system poses a real threat to the future development of the country.


[1] The Ministry of Education sets educational goals using the Index of Basic Education and Development (IBED). The index is calculated using national test scores and passing rates, and geographical units—such as states, municipalities, or individual schools—are assigned an index goal to meet.