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January-February 2012

Vol. 37, No. 1


Chile: Students push education reform

By neoliberal standards Chile is one of South America's most economically stable and prosperous countries. It has been the poster child of neoliberal economic reform since the days of President Augusto Pinochet, and, in 2010, became the first South American country invited into the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Despite garnering this international recognition, behind the facade it continues to produce some of the worst social indicators of any developed country: It has the highest income inequality among OECD countries, with 5.3 percent of the population living on $2 a day. Chile's education system—one of the most segregated and privatized in the world, with 55 percent of secondary students attending private schools, and with one of the lowest levels of public funding for education—contributes to this inequality. During the height of the student-led Penguins' Revolution in 2006, nearly 800,000 students participated in strikes and marches for reform. In May, the student movement was resurrected, and the Chilean education system has once again been thrust into the international spotlight by the outbreak of massive student strikes and protests.

Student protests began, in part, as a response to then Minister of Education Joaquín Lavín's initiative to increase government funding for schools that are purportedly non-profit, but which have been able to take advantage of loopholes in order to turn a profit. (Lavín has since been replaced by Felipe Bulnes.) The protests also came on the heels of other Chilean demonstrations, like those in opposition to the controversial HidroAysén dam project. Both the 2006 and the current 2011 student protests are directed at an "education system [that] is grossly unfair—that gives rich students access to some of the best schooling in Latin America while dumping poor [students] in shabby, underfunded state schools." (BBC, August 11, 2011)

According to the OECD, nearly 40 percent of all education spending in Chile comes from households by way of tuition fees. The government accounts for only 16 percent of higher education spending—compared to an OECD average of 70 percent—while three out of four universities are privately owned. Secondary education is not much different, with less than half of students attending schools fully funded by the state. Instead, more privileged students go to elite private schools or subsidized schools, where the costs are borne by both state vouchers and parents, an arrangement that prices out poorer students -- whose families cannot pay the tuition fee -- from attending higher quality schools. A recent UNESCO report found that "the system which characterizes Chilean education is geared to privatization processes which tend to segmentation, exclusion, discrimination and highly selective mechanisms," and that the scholarship and subvention system "protects and benefits private initiative."

Camila Vallejo

Led by Camila Vallejo (right), president of the Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECH), and Giorgio Jackson, the student movement has gained broad support from the Chilean public over the seven months of protest. Tactics employed by the student-led movement have ranged from marches numbering in the hundreds of thousands to school occupations—at one point over 100 schools were occupied—to creative demonstrations, like a rendition of Michael Jackson's music video "Thriller" to make the statement that public education is dying. Despite the nonviolent approach, some demonstrations have ended in brutal clashes between police and student protestors.

Opinions within the movement about its goals are not homogenous, with some primarily looking for short term gains, like increased spending for public schools and more scholarships for university students. Others seek a more fundamental overhaul of the education system. The most widely supported goals are those in a CONFECH proposal known as the "Social Agreement for Chilean Education." This detailed proposal calls for a drastic change in the direction of education system, including a ban on government support to for-profit schools, increased direct state spending for education, free public education at all levels, central government control over primary and secondary schools to limit inequalities, and a moratorium on new voucher schools, among other things.

Despite overwhelming support for the movement's demands, negotiations with President Sebastián Piñera's government have continued to break down. To date no significant reforms have gone into effect; however students have won minor victories, like decreased interest rates and refinancing on student loans and grants for 60 percent of students in public universities. Leaders of the movement claim that a lack of political will, not popular support, is to blame for the breakdowns. In mid-November, under increased pressure from the government to revoke grants and scholarships of students who skip school to attend protests, students agreed to return to school.

And while students have not yet achieved the broad reforms they deem necessary, they have gained widespread public support, Piñera's approval ratings have plummeted, and the student-movement for education reform has spread rapidly across the region and the world. They have created a new atmosphere in Chile that will undoubtedly help move the struggle for education reform and deeper economic reform forward.


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