A (very) brief overview of the Chilean education system, part 3

Chilean Student Movements

Chilean students have a generations-long history of mobilizing and being a force for social change in their country. In the 1980s, high school and university students were a huge part of the effort to end the dictatorship. In 2006, high school students all over the country took over their schools to demand improvements to the secondary school system. And those are just the big ones — there are dozens of examples of students of various grades/school levels organizing to improve their lives and/or the lives of the whole country.

What I’m going to focus on in this post, however, is the student movement of 2011. You may or may not have seen things about it on the news last year — reports were kind of sketchy in the U.S. — but this was a big freaking deal. I’m still not super well-versed on all the details, but I’ll lay out what I’ve learned:

The movement started in May 2011 and basically just did. Not. Stop. Between May and December, huge swathes of university students, plus a good chunk of secondary students, took to the streets to demand big changes in the education system. A lot of their protests took traditional forms like marches and school takeovers — over the course of the movement, 65% of schools and universities in Chile were taken over or shut down. But the movement also got creative in voicing their discontent: apart from traditional forms of protesting, they held events like an 1,800-second kiss-in (for the $1.8 billion it would supposedly take to fund public education) and a giant flash mob wherein thousands of students dressed up as zombies and danced to Thriller outside La Moneda, the presidential palace. One of the leaders of the movement came to speak to our class and said that they intentionally tried to use a variety of different forms of protest in order to make the movement bigger and more inclusive: when it comes to social movements, there are usually people who will say “Well, I agree with your message, but I’m not going to join you because I don’t like the way you’re protesting.” With so many different types of protests, it was easier for people who did like the message of the movement to join whatever kind of protest they preferred.

So, who liked the message of the movement? A heck of a lot of people. Both this set of protests and the ones in 2006 had hugely widespread social support: parents, teachers, community members, most of the society as a whole was basically on the same page as the students about the changes that needed to be made. In September 2011, the movement’s approval rating was at 72%, a sharp contrast to President Sebastián Piñera’s* 22% approval. Although the student movement has died down considerably right now (or, rather, hasn’t picked up again since the beginning of this Chilean school year), Piñera’s approval rating is still hovering around 25-30% — the public has been severely dissatisfied with the efforts made by the government to meet the students’ demands.

I guess I haven’t yet talked about the students’ demands (sorry, this isn’t the most organized blog post ever), but if you’ve read my other couple of posts on the education system, particularly the second one, you might have some idea of what they’re asking for. Their general demand is for a free, high-quality education for every student in Chile. Sub-demands to support this general demand include a return to public schools, run by the federal government, instead of the wildly unequal municipal schools; an end to the practice of running schools as a for-profit business; a wider range of selection criteria to get into university, instead of the current single test; and a lower interest rate on the government loan for higher education, which started out with the highest interest rate of any loan in the entire country.

As of October last year, the students had gotten the interest rate on the higher education loan cut in half… and that was about it. The government continued offering superficial and small changes instead of the large-scale reconstruction and improvements the students and their societal supporters were asking for. The student leader who spoke to our class described the general government response to the movement, and I think I can best summarize it in dialogue form:

Students: We are protesting!
Government: You can’t just protest without proposing any concrete changes! Come talk to us when you have something solid to ask for.
Students: Okay, here’s our proposal of concrete changes.
Government: You can’t just propose all these changes without talking about where the money to implement them is going to come from! Come back when you have ideas about how to fund the system you’re proposing.
Students: Okay, here are some ideas of where you could get the money to rework the system.
Government: Whoa whoa whoa, why are you talking about economic issues? You’re students, the only think you can talk about is education! Don’t try and mess around with the economy.

So it was pretty clear to that student leader that the government never intended to really work with them, and was just interested in putting forward the appearance of cooperation while constantly giving them the run-around.

This year, all the same problems that the students were talking about last year are still there: for-profit schools, a hugely segregated education system, abysmal rates of college admission (especially for non-upper-class kids), etc. With the school year just starting, though, the movement doesn’t seem to have picked back up quite yet. There was one protest last month that got shut right down by riot police with tear gas and guanacos (vehicles that spray water with the intensity of a fire hose), and there have been multiple protests about various other causes that have had a large student population in attendance. It still remains to be seen whether the movement will start back up again this year, whether other causes will take precedent, or whether the students will want to wait a bit until they get a new government that might be more willing to work with them.

*NOTE: Google Chrome’s spellcheck thinks this word should be “Piñata’s.” No, Chrome. Just no.


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