Multiple federalisms: Comparing federal educational systems in Latin America

Year: 2019

Author: Beech, Jason, Rivas, Axel

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Educational governance is defined through complex interactions between global networks, states, corporations, non-governmental organisations, educational institutions, families, and many other actors that contribute to define the type of education that is offered in schools. Analysing how knowledge, material and symbolic resources and power circulate through these networked interactions is key in understanding contemporary power relations in education.

Furthermore, policies are dynamic objects that move between different contexts. As policies move, they transform the contexts to which they move but at the same time policies are transformed by this context. Policies are interpreted and reinterpreted (Ball, 2015). Policies are ontologically unstable objects that have different meanings in different contexts at the same time.

In the case of federal systems, extra layers of complexity are added to the challenge of examining education policies and power relations in education. Federal systems challenge the use of the nation state as the taken for granted unit of analysis, since sub-national units can reinterpret national and global mandates differently, and can even produce their own initiatives independently from the federal level. Moreover, empirical evidence shows that federalism cannot simply be opposed to unitary systems. There are diverse institutional designs of federal systems that require detailed analyses of the effects that federalism might have on processes of educational governance. Thus, we argue that there are multiple federalisms, and that there is much work to be done in terms of mapping, interpreting and comparing the different ways in which federations govern education.

In this paper, we explore this argument by analyzing and comparing forms of educational governance in three federal systems in Latin America: Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. We suggest that federalism in these three nation-states has very different historical trajectories and institutional designs, resulting in particular ways of distributing power among governmental agencies.

Global policy flows in the 1990s promoted decentralization in school systems in Latin America, resulting in a wave of administrative transference of schools to sub-national agencies in most countries. This was mainly triggered by fiscal aims of budget restriction. However, in the last twenty years there has been a shift toward educational recentralization, with federal agencies gaining control through policies such as tighter curricular standards, distribution of textbooks or computers, and high stakes assessments. We compare the dynamic forms of federalism in these three countries by looking at shifts in the distribution of fiscal, political and curricular power over education.