Chile — 01 July 2016

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Photo “Chile movimiento estudiantil marcha universidad de Concepcion” by Carol Crisosto Cadiz. It reads “For an free, quality education serving the town.” Though from 2011, it shows what the students demanded then, and what they are still demanding now.

30 June 2016. Santiago, Chile.  In this article we explain that student protesters in Chile, in particular high school students, have gone far beyond peaceful protests to outright lawlessness and violence.  This increase in violence, disregard for the law, and the adoption of destructive tactics has probably set back the momentum for educational reform more than enhanced it.   

In 2011, university and high school Chilean students marched in the streets demand education reform. They are still marching after being relatively quiet for a couple of years.  But this time what the students want isn’t clear, since a large portion of what they want has already been passed into law and many of their student leaders have been elected to the Chilean congress.

The Road to Education Reform

Prior to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, university and grammar school education was free. But Pinochet was a fanatical capitalist who, having just kicked out a communist government, turned over economic planning to economists from The University of Chicago and their Chilean followers. One result was education was turned over to private businesses, for the most part. What emerged for grammar schools was three types: public, subsidized, and private, with parents paying tuition at all three. Even so-called public universities in Chile are profit-making entities.  Now students want the return of free public education.

Many of the protests ceased in 2014, with the election of student leaders Camila Vallejo, Giorgio Jackson, and Gabriel Boric to the Chilean congress. Vallejo was a spokesperson for the University of Chile Student Federation (FECH) and led many of the protests in 2011. Jackson and Boric were also members of FECH. Students hoped that their places in Congress would encourage discussion of education reform.

Around the same time, Michelle Bachelet was re-elected president. Given the surge in student protests under President Piñera, Bachelet put education reform at the top of her list of campaign promises. Bachelet, who had already served as president from 2006 to 2010, faced large student protests too, known as the “penguin protests.”

So she promised to bring changes to education if she were elected.

Thus far, Bachelet has succeeded in altering Chilean education, but not to the degree that she or the students wanted.  The sharp decline in the price of copper, Chile’s major export, is one factor that allowed the right-wing, who opposes these reforms, to slow down these reforms by saying the country cannot afford it.

In May of last year, Bachelet passed the Ley de Inclusión Escolar (School Inclusion Law). The law included major changes for grammar schools, like no more copayments at schools that were public and free in name only. Bachelet said that as of March, 240,000 students did not have to pay enrollment and tuition fees.

The law also makes illegal the discriminatory selection of students for entry into school. That is to say, students will not have to provide economic, social or academic background information in order to apply for a state-funded school, nor will they have to take a selection test. The purpose of this is to make sure students are not being discriminated against when the school selects which students will attend it. If a school has vacancies, it will have to accept all students who apply. However, when a school doesn’t have enough openings for all the students who apply, a random selection method will be used to avoid discrimination.

After getting her grammar school bill through the congress, Bachelet has finally put forth her proposals for changes in higher education.  The Ley de Educación Superior (The Law of Higher Education) seeks to make university education free. As a stop-gap measure laws have already been passed to do that for a small portion of the public.

As we explained a couple months ago, tuition is currently free for those students who are in the bottom 60% of family incomes in the country.  But there is a bit of subterfuge here.  That number does not mean 60% of students do not pay tuition.  It sounds like the intent was to apply that to 60% of all students.  In fact, it means given the entirety of the student population, free tuition is given to only those students who come from the lowest 60% of socioeconomic classes.  Obviously that number is a lot lower than 60% of all students, since the poor are much less likely to apply to college than the middle and upper classes.

The current bill would also provide quality control for education and changes to the current public education system.

In order to ensure the students are getting the quality of education they need, Bachelet proposed that the National Accreditation Commission be transformed into a Council for the Quality of Higher Education. The Council would award accreditation to schools that meet a certain quality requirement. That quality requirement would be established in a known criteria created by the Council.

With regard to the public education system, Bachelet hopes to create a National System of Public Education so that the quality of an educational institution doesn’t depend upon the finances and capabilities of an individual municipality. We already reported on an OECD study that describes the dismal state of Chile’s grammar schools.

Yet despite the fact that Congress is currently addressing this reform bill, students are still protesting.  They take to the streets beating drums, carrying signs that say “no more profits,” and physically seizing schools.

Students Occupying and Vandalizing Grammar Schools

El Mercurio published an article on June 1st that declared 17 grammar schools in toma. The Spanish verb for “to take,” toma is used to describe how student protesters are occupying their schools. They actually move in and take over the schools, lock them down, and prohibit teachers and other students from entering, thus stopping education of any kind altogether.  

One of the major grammar schools that seems to be in perpetual toma is the Instituto Nacional, the top public school in the country. Students from there who have sought to enroll elsewhere in order not to ruin their education have sometimes been turned away by private schools who say, “We don’t want any radicals here.”

This school, which they call a flagship,  was occupied by the students for 22 days before the Carabineros, the Chilean police force, kicked them out. Students threw molotov cocktails and paint bombs at them. After the Carabineros removed them, the students moved right back in.

This is fairly remarkable behavior for students who are attending the nation’s top school, from which have graduated several former presidents.

But the students do not stop at taking over the schools. They have also destroyed the interior of buildings and stolen computers and other equipment.

Pictures show the inside of the Instituto Nacional covered in graffiti. Plus, the Municipality of Santiago has received reports of extensive damage in 11 of the occupied establishments. In the school Darío Salas, for example, there were fumes of a strange gas found. Likewise, in another flagship school, Internado Nacional Barros Arana, the damage was found to be around $400,000 Chilean pesos ($600,000 US dollars).  

The students do not even limit their destruction to educational institutions. At the end of May, a group of masked protesters burned a pharmacy and supermarket in the name of education reform, resulting in the death of a policeman. In another instance, members of the Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECH), burned a church and destroyed a figure of Christ. That was shocking in a country where the Catholic Church is such a presence that abortion is not permitted under any circumstance and divorce was only made legal in 2004.

The metropolitan manager of Santiago, David Morales, said that he could not remember a student demonstration with a higher level of violence. The mayor of Santiago, Carolina Toha, also commented, calling the student groups demonstrating “ultra small and ultra violent.”

When asked to say something regarding the protests, President Bachelet noted that Chile needs a youth committed to public affairs, but their criticism needs to be constructive, not destructive. Director of Municipal Education Mónica Espina expressed a similar view regarding the destructive actions of the students, saying that “the student movement is being used by certain sectors to destroy public schools.”

The Demands of the Students

The students’ actions have left the Chilean people asking one question: why?

With some of Bachelet’s changes already in place, and other reform being discussed at the moment, the country is left wondering what more the students are hoping for.  

When asked by La Tercera, the president of the student center at the Instituto Nacional, Roberto Zambrano, said that the students need to be activists once more, and that they could not allow negligence on the part of the education reform movement. But to what is he referring? La Nacion reports that he petitioned for universal free education and for “profit to leave the market.”

A young boy from the grammar school Liceo Eduardo de La Barra de Valparaíso also explained. He said that grammar schools in Chile are funded based on the student attendance, which he says leaves schools without enough money to pay for school supplies and the school infrastructure, among other things. He said that students want to set up a baseline funding that doesn’t depend on the number of students in attendance.

Journalist Alejandra Valle, whose son was involved in one of the protests, also tried to articulate the viewpoints of the students. She argued that the young people want to improve not just the funding of education, but also the quality of education, like improving teaching methods so that students would be able to think critically.

The Domino Effects of the Protest

Whatever the students may want, the protests have led to another problem unrelated to education reform: interlopers using the protests to loot and wreak havoc.

Delinquents and other members of the Chilean lumpen are taking advantage of the chaos caused by the student movement to carry out small lootings and acts of destruction, reports El Pais.

In fact, the aforementioned CONFECH students who vandalized the church and stole a Christ figure may not even have been students at all. While CONFECH students were marching nearby the church to advocate for education reform, the youths who burned the church could actually have been part of the lumpen. These youths, who are known as encachupados in Spanish because they were wearing hoods over their heads, were denounced by José Corona, a member of the National Secondary School Coordination (CONES). He said that the organization didn’t want any more encachupados involved their protests.

This involvement of outsiders in the protest further extends the damage being done to Chilean communities because of the destructive nature of the student movement.

The question remains if Bachelet’s second wave of reform will pass. And if it does, if it will do anything to quell the student rage that is resulting in destruction in Chilean grammar schools.

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(2) Readers Comments

  1. Wow. What’s happening to the world now?

  2. “Al servicio del pueblo” doesn’t mean “At the service of the town” but “At the service of the people.” Pinochet didn’t “kick out a communist government” but launched a coup against a democratically-elected socialist government. I didn’t bother to read the rest. Very poor reporting.

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