Cuba set to kick off the new school year with a shortage of 10,000 teachers

File photo of school children at the Escuela Primaria Hermanas Giral Municipio Plaza in Havana, Cuba.
File photo of school children at the Escuela Primaria Hermanas Giral Municipio Plaza in Havana, Cuba.

Despite a series of initiatives implemented by the Cuban government to prevent the continuing exodus of school teachers, classes are scheduled to begin next month with a shortage of about 10,000 instructors, according to the island’s Minister of Education.

Ena Elsa Velázquez told official Cuban press this week that only five of the island’s 15 provinces — Granma, Guantánamo, Las Tunas, Pinar del Río and Santiago de Cuba — are in good shape in terms of teacher-student ratio for when classes begin on Sept. 3.

Low salaries and deteriorating working conditions, including outdated equipment and dilapidated school buildings, have prompted thousands of educators to abandon the field in favor of better-paying jobs, such as in the tourism industry. The average monthly salary of a teacher in Cuba is 533 pesos, about $21, according to official data.

In an effort to stem the exodus, authorities have begun to pay teachers by the hour, allow retirees to return to the classrooms and use university students as teachers for younger students. Some analysts have pointed out that since 2006, when Raúl Castro assumed government control, the Ministry of Education budget has decreased along with the number of teachers and schools.

Over the past decade, at least 21,000 teachers quit their jobs, according to a report from the Office of Statistics and Information. Education expenses, which represented 14.1 percent of GDP in 2008, fell to 9 percent in 2017, according to Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuba economy expert. During this period, 1,803 schools were closed, according to official figures.

The Cuban government has tried to fill the teacher void with various initiatives, including a program that provides university students with intensive training. Those who participate earn a university degree and men get an extra bonus: an exemption from required military service. The strategy has had some effect.

In 2017, schools registered a deficit of 16,000 teachers, compared to the 10,000 for the upcoming school year. Official statistics also indicate that there is an uptick in the number of teachers back in the classroom, which went from 242,103 in the 2015-2016 academic year to 248,438 teachers in the 2016-2017 academic year.

Despite these efforts, the quality of education has been a topic of debate among the official press. Critics have said that Cuba’s reputation for having a high-level of education accessible to all youth across the island is now a thing of the past.

Follow Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba