What's at stake in Chile's struggle for public education?

From the very beginning, students and educators were an important target for the Pinochet dictatorship. Thousands were killed and disappeared. Education was considered or at least treated as an enemy of neoliberalism. Why not? After all capitalism has always had an uncomfortable relationship with universal quality education.

Pinochet’s first concern – which reflects a recurrent theme in this uncomfortable relationship – was to control education as tightly as possible. Decisions about financing, teachers and curriculum were to be determined by the central government, ensuring that schools and universities limited learning to necessary basics and avoided promoting a culture of questioning. Rigorous control and a direct hand in the educational process of production were the watchwords of the early years of dictactorship.

At first the dictatorship concentrated its policy on privatisation and de-regulation of the productive sectors of the economy, causing a flood of foreign capital, plunging industrial production and massively increasing unemployment. Having cleared the way for big capital, decapitated the opposition movements and facing the growing social polarisation affected by such policies, the military regime then turned to policies aimed at stabilising the neoliberal economy on the basis of export growth. Of course, firmly straightjacketed by its neoliberal convictions, this implied filling the role assigned to it in the global economy as provider of natural resources. The newly de-regulated environment provided ample opportunities for growth outside of the traditional copper industry. The sales of fruit, fish, wood pulp and paper grew to make up around 40% of exports by the end of the 1970s. Some diversification occurred, but by the end of the dictatorship, over 85% of Chile’s exports remained those based on natural resources.

By the 1980s the world had followed suit, and Chile’s place in the global neoliberal economy required a new emphasis in education policy. The education arena presented a number of opportunities and challenges. It still remained a major burden on a regime which prided itself on slashing public spending, it represented relatively untouched terrain from the point of view of the market and business profit, and the organisation of curriculum and “educational achievement” was at odds with the needs of an economy needing to increase its technical personnel while distinguishing this from mass schooling for the growing number of the excluded.

How do you organise education to provide for the high-end skills needed to fill employment growth in the unproductive sectors of the economy like marketing and financial services – where the bulk of Chile’s growth occurred during the decade from the mid-70s – while providing education to a majority bound for an increasingly de-skilled workforce or unemployment?

Pinochet kept up the neoliberal rhetoric, stating his goal was “to make Chile not a nation of proletarians, but a nation of entrepreneurs”. But the reality was encompassed in a plan to further institutionalise educational inequality. In 1980 the regime enacted two decrees, together known as the LOCE, Ley Organica Constitucional de Educación. The law decentralised the administration of education, handing more than 300 local municipalities management powers of kindergarten, primary, and secondary schools, while retaining overall national regulation, in particular over curriculum and quality control. The LOCE also introduced a voucher funding system based on average monthly student attendance, to both publicly and privately managed schools. In addition, the regime encouraged competition for enrolments, promoting the idea that parents were getting increased choice and that such competition would force public schools to get better. To further improve competition, teachers in the public system were stripped of their public servant status and made subject to the deregulated labour market, where wage fixing was no longer centralised and labour action limited by law. Industry was also given incentives to manage vocational education. To regulate all this in terms of quality, the national government set up the SIMCE (System for the Measurement of Educational Quality), where national testing took centre stage.

To teachers, other educators and students in Australia, this all sounds not vaguely but frighteningly familiar.

The 1980s education reform managed to slash national education spending by 18% over the subsequent decade. This forced municipal governments to use their own funds, which of course were rather limited in the poorer parts of town. The invisible hand of the market, as usual, favoured those already privileged. The education divide widened.

Prior to the 1980 reform, some 80% of Chilean students attended public schools. By 1997 just over a fifth of these had shifted to the private system, scrambling to stay in the game. Not all private schools are created equal, however. According to 1998 Ministry figures, at the time some 9% of enrolments were in fully private elite schools. Students in those private schools relying more heavily on public funding could find themselves paying for very little in return. Chile’s middle class parents sacrifice themselves in hope that a little bit of private education might go a long way. But they can’t keep up with the top. Recent figures show that the elite private schools charge fees over 10 times the amount of the value of the government voucher.

It’s not just public schools in the poorest neighbourhoods, but municipal (state) schools in general that have become run down, forced to adopt shortened school days and eliminate entire subjects from the curriculum. Teachers get demoralised and some become targets for rich schools seeking the best educators they can pay for. It pays off for the wealthy. In the latest national tests the maths scores for 4th graders were 35% better for students from the richest fifth of the population.

Like Pinochet and neoliberals everywhere, Chile’s current President is acutely interested in education’s place in the reform agenda. The battle for economic growth will “be won or lost in the classroom”, declared Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera. Julia Gillard, then speaking as Education Minister to the Australian Industry Group in 2007, said likewise: “In today’s world, the areas covered by my portfolios – early childhood education and childcare, schooling, training, universities, social inclusion, employment participation and workplace cooperation – are all ultimately about the same thing: Productivity. So while my portfolios can be a mouthful, I’ll be happy to be referred to simply as the Minister for Productivity.”

Today’s post-GFC neoliberal world holds out much less hope and begs far more anxiety from the world’s “middle classes”. Neoliberal governments have the tough job of deepening the same economic policies that led to the GFC, in order to stay above water, and simultaneously assure the public that the future will be brighter, at least for their kids. The former emphasis leaves very little room for the latter need. Education and “social inclusion” are at the centre of this difficult sell.

Part of this means increasing spending in education and early childhood, which can be done while increasing the pattern of privatisation; handing money to the private sector, who are also increasingly empowered by the further destruction of teachers pay, conditions and solidarity. In this way, Piñera promises more funding and “incentives” to produce better teachers. Parents, teachers and students are increasingly the target of deliberate divide and rule. Piñera has promised 60 “schools of excellence” for the bright children of the poor. With the promise of an out for some at least, neoliberal governments hope to focus anger on under-performing schools, rather than under-performing governments.

In Chile, however, students, their families and teachers have provided an example of the alternative to all this madness. They have joined together and they have stood up.

Students in Chile have occupied their classrooms and their schools, gone on hunger strike, performed run-a-thons, kiss-a-thons, dances and just about everything else you can imagine, helping to put on the agenda what to date we only dare whisper about in our classrooms, schools and communities.

In their recent letter to Piñera, the CONFECH (Chilean Federation of Students) condemned this “deregulated and individualistic system”, they deplored the sale of education as a “consumer good” and they demanded the state “guarantee education as a social right”.

The students of Chile are demanding an “end to private sector financing of education”; an end to all profiteering from primary, secondary and tertiary education; a guarantee of access to higher education for students “from the most vulnerable sectors” of society; a guarantee of quality not based on testing; a guarantee of the cultural and linguistic rights of indigenous people; and the wholesale rebuilding of a national public education system funded by the state and unconnected to private enterprise.

One of the slogans seen on posters perhaps best sums it up: Fin al lucro en la educacion, nuestros sueños no les pertenecen. Education is not for profit, our dreams are no one’s property.