TOPICS > World

Student Education Reform Protests Rock Chile

BY Allie Morris  August 31, 2011 at 10:30 AM EDT

Students at a "Kiss Party" protest in Santiago, Chile. Photo by Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images.

For more than three months, Chilean high school and university students have staged kiss-a-thons, hunger strikes, fake suicides and massive marches to demand the government provide access to free, quality education.

The Chilean Confederation of Students, a group that leads the student movement, agreed to meet with President Sebastian Pinera on Saturday, following his call for dialogue last week.

Three previous attempts at compromise have failed. Most recently, students rejected the government’s four point plan, issued Aug. 17, that included the creation of smaller education governing boards composed of community representatives, a reduction of interest rates tacked onto federal student loans, an increase in government-awarded scholarships granted to the poorest 60 percent of the population, and the addition of two constitutional reforms that guarantee access to quality education as a right and prevent universities from making a profit off of education.

The students rejected the proposal on the grounds that it was too vague. Two previous attempts by the government to settle with the students, including the first proposal known as G.A.N.E. issued July 4 and a 21-point proposal released at the beginning of August, also were quashed by the student group.

Chilean workers joined the cause last week, when the country’s main workers union federation, known as CUT, led a two-day national strike. On Thursday, the second day of the strike, roughly 600,000 union workers, government workers and students took to the streets across Chile calling for sweeping changes to tax reform, a new social security system, new labor legislation, and more investment in health and education.

During the demonstrations police detained nearly 1,400 people and a teenage boy was shot and killed by a policeman, spurring the dismissal of several police officers. Local news organizations reported 153 police officers and 53 civilians were injured during the CUT strike. The strike effectively shut down Chile’s capital of Santiago, where 200,000 protestors filled the streets.

“I couldn’t go to class Wednesday or Thursday,” said Natalia Marchant Piderit, a student at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago who has been participating in the strikes. “Public transportation was difficult because people from CUT started fires in all the city’s most important streets to stop people from getting to work.”

The strike illustrated how the student-driven protests that began three months ago over inequality in education have morphed into a national call for reforms. Despite a growing economy, Pinera’s approval ratings are some of the lowest since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990. According to recent poll taken by a local Chilean newspaper, 76 percent of Chileans support the student protests and demonstrations.

The student uprisings grew from a social movement, according to Genaro Arriagada, a non-resident senior fellow at Inter-American Dialogue and a former ambassador of Chile to the United States. Although access to education has grown since 1990, and the number of students attending a university has roughly tripled, access to quality education for all students has not kept pace, said Arriagada.

“The richest go to the excellent universities and the poorest go to the third class universities,” he said. “Education is very segregated, from your birth until you become a professional.”

The current education system has its roots to the Pinochet dictatorship, when oversight of public schools was transferred from the Ministry of Education to the municipal governments, and the central government began funding both public schools and private schools, which didn’t charge tuition, through a per-pupil voucher program.

“Education became sort of a business; you could make money with these subsidies from the state,” said Pedro Hernán Henríquez Guajardo, who between 2003 and 2006 served as the director of planning in Chile’s Ministry of Education.

Chile’s education system became a mix of public, private and subsidized private schools. The tiered system created deep divides in education along class lines.

“Children take a test to get into university and naturally the test doesn’t take into account children’s backgrounds,” said Arriagada. “Mid- and high-class students go to private schools that are very good, that have libraries and technology. These people, at a very high rate, get into the good schools. The teachers are OK in the low-class schools, the libraries are bad and the students have a very low score on the test.”

Typically, those who can’t afford it are excluded from the elite private schools. Since subsidized private schools choose their students, they generally select students of higher performance, leaving public municipality schools with “students that require more attention and funds to be educated,” according to a 2007 report published by the Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education.

“It’s not on purpose, but the teachers know that the poor students can go nowhere,” said Claudia Gilardoni, a researcher for the Chilean National Council for Books and Reading, who has worked in high poverty schools giving promotions on reading and is currently organizing a training program to improve public school libraries. “In the students’ family environment, there are no books, there is no library, there is no conversation, there is no culture, so what are they going to do? They are going to work in a super market, they are going to get minimum salary and they are going to be nobody. The teachers say they can do nothing else and maybe they are right because it’s a system. It’s terrible, but it’s true.”

This isn’t the first time students have fought to reform the system. In 2006, a movement of high school students, known as the Penguin Revolution for the students’ white and black uniforms, called for similar educational reform. The protests ended in an agreement between the former President Michelle Bachelet and the students that led to the eventual creation of a new Education Quality Council. For some, that agreement didn’t change enough.

“It was more a show than a change,” said Valentina Quiroga of Education 2020, a Chilean non-governmental organization dedicated to improving education. “Nothing really happened after the Penguin Revolution. The transformations have been very slow in their implementation.” Which is why, she said students have been reluctant to meet with government officials this time.

Many students don’t see an end in sight until all their demands are met. “They are waiting until we are bored, until we tired of striking, they want that,” said Piderit. “But we have a lot of strength.”

Others say it will take time. “The demand is that quality education for all is free,” said Gilardoni. “They are saying let’s just go back to the 1970s and forget everything in the last 30 years. That can’t just happen; in the last 30 years we have developed an industry based on education.”

View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.