RIO DE JANEIRO -- Students from federal high schools in Brazil protested sharp budget cuts ordered by President Jair Bolsonaro's administration — the latest clash in a highly divisive battle over Brazilian education.
Hundreds of high schoolers were joined by university students, teachers and parents at the entrance to a Rio de Janeiro military school where Bolsonaro was speaking at the school's 130th anniversary celebration.
"Military schools are examples of education and excellence for Brazilian education," he said. "Together with the defense and education ministries, we intend to implement a military high school in all the state capital cities in Brazil."
Outside, protesters blocked traffic and chanted "Bolsonaro, take your hands off my school" while waving textbooks in the air.
"It's really sad. We're freshmen. We took the standardized test and got into the industrial mechanics course and our school won't have the budget anymore," said Rafaela Correa, a 15-year-old attending a technical high school.
A schoolmate, Gabriel Alves, added, "I really just want to graduate."
Federal public universities, generally the country's most competitive and highest-ranked schools, were stunned last week when the Education Ministry announced a 30% cut in their funding. The ministry also announced cuts for some federally funded high schools, including a network of 14 prestigious schools in Rio dating from the first half of the 19th century. Administrators said their budget was reduced 36% and that will result in "devastating consequences."
The ministry said that the cuts were taken to meet a spending cap imposed by Bolsonaro's new administration and that officials will study other criteria for budgeting, such as academic performance and impact of courses on the job market.
"It's totally absurd. Education was already not getting the attention it deserves, but now they're making it impossible," said Leticia Martins Dias, a protester whose two children's high schools were affected by the cuts. She said that she and her husband are both unemployed and cannot pay for private school.
Daniel Cara, coordinator of the National Campaign for the Right to Education, said Brazilian schools will likely close before the end of the school year because such a significant cut will not allow them to pay staff and bills.
"These cuts show Bolsonaro's desire to make public education become very precarious. It's the first step towards privatization," Cara said. "It's strangulation."
Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, is a supporter of Schools Without Party, a movement that contends Brazil's public schools are biased and full of teachers who "indoctrinate" students with a leftist viewpoint.
Last week, a legislator from the president's party introduced a bill to strip Paulo Freire, a celebrated education theorist, of his ceremonial title as the "patron of Brazilian education." Freire is internationally recognized for developing a literacy program for impoverished sugarcane workers.