Chilean Students Show the Way

Last week, I was giving a workshop at the University of Chile in Santiago. The building that faced ours houses the Federation of Students of the University of Chile (FECH), where day after day students were giving interviews to an eager press. Camila Vallejo, the 23-year old president of the student organization, has become a folk hero throughout Latin America. (If you understand Spanish, Search for her YouTube interviews). Freddy Fuentes is a 16-year-old high school student also making the rounds of TV news and talk shows. Over 200 schools and universities have been taken over by students, and on the day of my workshop, 100,000 students and supporters marched in pouring rain.

Labor has joined the students with a two-day national strike and demonstration on August 24th and 25th in which 1,400 demonstrators were arrested. Recent polls show that the student protesters have the support of 80 percent of the population. Chilean students are experimenting with new forms of protest, such as marathon runs around congress, kiss-ins, and a 3,000-student performance of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" to imply that the education system in Chile has become a zombie.

While in Chile, I gave workshops, visited a school and talked to lots of teachers and school administrators who, much like their counterparts in the U.S., feel they have little voice in educational policy. In fact, like most teachers in the U.S., they feel blamed for social inequalities and other social problems they have little control over. Students and their families in Chile have gone deep in debt because most universities are private and the public ones are very expensive. The students' slogan is "Educar, no Lucrar," or "Educate, don't Profiteer," which means that education is a public good, not for making profit. While their message is clear and focused, it is a message that has broader structural implications, and the students, who have the media's attention, are providing an articulate critique of the 40 years of neoliberal policies in Chile that have led to massive inequality and a ravaged public sector.

For years, previous generations of Chileans, traumatized by 17 years of military oppression, were hesitant to engage in a massive social movement. In 2006, high school students took to the streets as a precursor to the current movement. Known as the "pinguinos" or penguins, because of their black and white school uniforms, they set the tone for subsequent demonstrations. Many of the leaders of today's movement were politicized as high schools students during the 2006 "pinguinos" movement.

Only about 45 percent of high school students attend public schools in Chile, and most universities are private. The other 55 percent of Chilean high school students either attend private schools subsidized by government funds or more elite private schools without public subsidies, leading to a highly stratified system. As in the U.S., Chile has a growing sector of for-profit universities, which are a growth industry across the globe. Tuition in both private and State universities are high because funding from the State is minimal, forcing students to take out loans from private banks at 6 percent interest. Chile spends 4.2 percent of GDP on education, well under that of other similar countries.

The parallels with the U.S situation are striking. In both Chile and the U.S. many are appalled that for-profit universities, most of which are of low quality, receive government-backed loans. Furthermore, in the U.S. relatively small tutoring companies like Kaplan and Sylvan have become major corporations because of transfers of tax-payer money to the private sector through the Supplemental Education Services vouchers provided by No Child Left Behind. Chile also has its own high-stakes test called the SIMCE, and the same distortion of the education system that we see in the U.S. is visible there. Subjects like art, music, social science and physical education are marginalized, and pressures on teachers and students have lead to burn out and teaching to the test.

What makes the Chilean protests particularly significant is that they can be seen as a direct critique of neoclassical economic policy. After the military coup toppled a democratic government in 1973, an economic model inspired by Chilean students of Milton Freidman was installed under the Pinochet dictatorship (See Naomi Klein's chapter on Chile in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism). Chile, more than any other country, represents the culmination of this neoliberal experiment, and the strikes and protests represent an important message that the rest of the world should take seriously.

Perhaps the most important accomplishment of the Chilean students is that they are delegitimizing neoliberal ideology, which in Chile had accomplished the status of common sense, and they have done so through a critique of their own educational institutions. The American press has largely ignored this story, but Americans interested in building a social movement around education policies have much to learn from the Chilean students, and should seek out as much information as possible on its continuing dynamic.

This post has been updated from a previous version.