POTOMAC, Md. — On March 11, 2006, Michelle Bachelet was sworn in as Chile’s first female president. Months later, students began clamoring, demanding the new president enact swift and radical education reform. Protests and marches filled Santiago — the country’s capital and largest city — as youths charged the streets in their characteristic uniforms of white shirts and black jackets.
“The Penguin’s Revolution,” it was called by some — “March of the Penguins” by others. And after initial opposition, Bachelet finally gave in to many of the students’ demands. She offered free transportation to the poorest 20 percent of public school students and provided grants to 80 percent of those who would take the PSU (the Chilean SAT.)
Bachelet’s term ended in 2010, and while she addressed many of the students’ grievances, many still felt that her reforms were only cosmetic. Great underlying changes were still needed.
Sebastian Piñero took over Bachelet’s helm, but unlike the president that preceded him, his cooperation with student demands was cold.
Under Piñero, in 2011 and 2012 the penguins once again flooded the streets, frustrated that only the rich and elite Chileans received quality education while the rest floundered in underfunded and unsupervised systems. Student debts accumulated, and poor Chileans dropped out of college at inordinate rates, unable to convince themselves that a degree could justify such enormous costs.
The president’s response was to supplant the student loans that carried 6 percent interest rates with more economical government loans.
Chile’s Modern Penguins
Enter 2014 — Michelle Bachelet has returned as Chile’s president. This time, she hopes to tackle education reform head on, enacting a tax reform that would deliver $8.2 billion for the cause. She also aims to launch constitutional reform that would eradicate the remnants of Augustus Pinochet’s neoliberal dictatorship.
But students remain dubious.
They still believe the Chilean government treats education as an economic good instead of a fundamental right. Students don’t just want better education — they want it for free.
Just last month, tens of thousands of protesters streamed into Santiago, and violence took hold of the city.
Police officers lofted tear gas canisters into crowds, dispersing impassioned crowds of students, teachers and education advocates. Some protesters responded, hurling rocks and ambushing armored police cars.
In all, close to 90 protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct.
A Problem of Inheritance
There are three problems that plague Chile’s education system: schools are segregated by income, rich Chileans consistently and dramatically outperform others on standardized tests and colleges remain too pricey for most.
These problems are a vestige of Pinochet’s radical legislation during his dictatorial regime.
In 1981, he put in place a voucher system that decentralized the school system.
Both private and public schools receive funds from the state based on their enrollment and attendance rates. Meanwhile, parents receive vouchers that they can use to their liking: send children to a public school for free or use it to subsidize a private education.
In theory, the system gives parents more choice and encourages schools to acquire and keep as many students as possible — a worthy goal, no doubt.
But in practice, protesters argue, only the socioeconomically elite benefit. The poorest are ignored by a system that perpetuates “cream skimming.”
Poor students attend public schools — which make up 42.1 percent of all schools. Middle-income students go to slightly better subsidized private schools, which cost an additional $20 to $160 per month. And the Chilean elite attend expensive private schools or the country’s best and most selective public schools.
Can Numbers Lie?
Despite all this hullabaloo, the numbers tell a story of optimism — of Chile’s dramatic and successful upheaval of its education system.
In a report released last month, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) discussed Chile’s substantial progress in the education sector.
In 2000, Chilean testing scores were on-par with their Latin American neighbors. By 2003, the country was leading the continent in all subjects. And if one trusts Chile’s own educational quality measurement system, the SIMCE, reading and math scores have been steadily improving still since 2008.
Additionally, pupil-to-teacher ratios have fallen from 32 in 1999 to 23.5 in 2010, a usual indicator of improved educational quality.
Educational accessibility, according to World Bank data, also remains strong. Between 2007 and 2010, primary school net enrollment rates caromed between 93 percent and 96 percent. This compares well internationally, as UNESCO data shows that the average for Latin American countries was 95 percent and 97 percent for high-income countries.
Chile’s economy has also experienced an impressive surge in the past decade. It has been so strong, in fact, that The World Bank officially reclassified it as a high-income country in 2013.
This newfound wealth has increased the demand for skilled and educated laborers and allowed the government to accordingly increase the education budget from $907 million in 1990 to $3.07 billion in 2002.
The numbers look great, but the reality is that students aren’t happy. If education serves the students, then statistics only remain a tool for measuring progress macroscopically. The wrinkles, the small details, the kinks and irregularities unknown to observers can only be found by those living within the system who don’t need numbers to inform them of their own experiences.
– Shehrose Mian