Chile´s Education Dream Turns Sour as Teachers Shut Schools

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Student Protests
Chilean students clash with police during a protest demanding better education conditions in Santiago on June 25. Photographer: Vladimir Rodas/AFP/Getty Images

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet pushed through the biggest tax increases in almost half a century to raise teachers’ wages and eliminate education fees. Many students could be forgiven for wishing she had never bothered.

Bachelet’s vision of lifting Chile toward developed-nation status through improved education has collided with the interests of the teachers’ union, mirroring battles fought in countries farther north. As many as 300,000 pupils at state schools have been without classes for seven weeks as teachers wage their longest work stoppage in almost five decades to protest plans to make their evaluations more stringent.

“The prolonged strike is worrying and it is damaging the children,” said Manuel Sepulveda, a director at research group Education 2020. With the government struggling to reconcile various interest groups, “it is very likely that the education sector remains in crisis.”

Efforts to improve education by tying teacher pay to student performance -- long a flashpoint for controversy in the U.S. -- are now sparking a backlash in Latin America. Teachers in Mexico went on strike last month to protest an education overhaul. Chicago’s 30,000 educators walked off the job in 2012 over a plan to tie teacher evaluations to student performance. Washington and New York City met with similar resistance to evaluating educators.

Campaign Promises

Two years ago, Bachelet won the presidency by the biggest margin since the return of democracy in 1990 on pledges to guarantee good and free education for all. Better schooling was the key to Chile boosting productivity and making the jump to developed nation status, she said. It was also essential to narrowing the biggest inequality gap in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Giving students and teachers what they want has been harder than expected. University students, who had halted three years of protests, have once again taken to the streets on concern the government will backtrack on its pledges.

The teachers are protesting against a bill in Congress that would link a jump in wages to a more regular evaluation of teaching standards.

Knitting Needles

Caught in the middle of the Chilean dispute are students like Jeison Ruiz, 18, who is scheduled to take his end of school exams in December.

“All my life plans are on hold,” said Ruiz, who wants to become an electrician. “I don’t know when they are going to give the final exam, or even who to ask.”

For now, Ruiz is selling knitting needles outside a local hospital to fill his time; not the sort of enterprise that will help Chile retain its position as Latin America’s wealthiest nation.

Bachelet appointed a new education minister on June 27 to try and break the deadlock.

“The government is opening up to find an exit to the dispute,” Jaime Gajardo, head of the teachers’ association that has led the strike, said July 8. “It’s making effort, we recognize that, but it needs to be braver.”

Testing teachers is based on distrust and could be discriminatory, Gajardo said adding that it would cause educators to neglect their teaching duties to prepare for evaluations.

“There is no evidence that disciplinary tests have a positive impact and improve the quality of education,” he said.

As more educators return to work as the strike drags on, the teachers’ association will meet in the next few days and may vote to end the protest, Gajardo said on July 19.

Camila Vallejo

Student protests in support of free higher education grabbed headlines worldwide three years ago. Protest leader Camila Vallejo was profiled in newspapers such as The Guardian as a “new revolutionary folk hero,” as the police turned water cannons and tear gas on hundreds of thousands of students.

The country has the most segregated education system in the world and students were demanding a complete overhaul, Education 2020’s Sepulveda said.

“The education reform, which had the potential to be a great success, will end up as a shipwreck” if the government doesn’t get the support of all the players, said Gabriel Boric, a deputy in Congress and a former student leader.

Support for the education changes slumped to 33 percent in June from 45 percent the month before amid the strike by teachers, according to an opinion poll by GfK Adimark.

‘Brutal Inequality’

The government needs to push through two more bills before its education package is completed. One will transfer state schools to the control of the education ministry from local municipalities, while the other gradually introduces free university education.

Bachelet’s administration has already pushed through a bill to eliminate fees in schools that receive funding from the state.

The reforms deal with issues of “quality, of inclusion and resolve themes of brutal inequality,” the new Education Minister Adriana Delpiano said July 8.

That won’t come cheaply. The elimination of school fees cost $1.7 billion, higher wages and the career changes for teachers will be another $2.3 billion, the move to the education minister is $1 billion and the university bill is still to come.

All that at a time when the finance minister says the economy will grow less this year than forecast, prices will rise more than predicted and the fiscal deficit will be wider than forecast -- 3 percent of gross domestic product at the last estimate.

The government won’t have “all the resources originally forecast to carry out our program and meet social demands,” Bachelet said July 10. “We need to prioritize and gradualize some aspects of our commitments.”

Chile’s decade-long conflict over education looks like it is far from over.

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