Proposals for change in Chile

For the next several weeks, I will be sharing a few posts from Chile, where I have been visiting and talking with several educators and policymakers who shared their reflections on where the Chilean education system may be headed. The Chilean system has seen some remarkable educational improvements since 2000 at the same time that income inequality and segregation has increased. I am particularly interested in learning more about the Chilean system as Mario Waissbluth, President of the Chilean citizen’s movement Educación 2020, has described it as almost the opposite of the Finnish approach, which I wrote about during my visit to Finland with my family last spring. For background, Waissbluth wrote a series of posts for Diane Ravitch’s blog that chronicle the development of recent policies in Chile. The election of Michelle Bachelet as President earlier this year, and her endorsement of many of the changes that were demanded in significant student protests led some in the US to conclude that a massive change was underway. At the time, we talked with Waissbluth and Dr. Beatrice Avalos-Bevan, Associate Researcher at the Center for Advanced Research in Education, at the University of Chile; both explained that while some changes were being proposed, much was left to be done.

Just this week the Chilean legislature passed several key proposals designed to change key aspects of the education system. The proposals included 1) requiring the conversion of for-profit schools into non-profit schools; 2) the elimination of fees or “co-payments” that private, subsidized schools can charge parents; and 3) the enforcement and expansion of bans on primary and secondary schools’ selection of students. While many see these initiatives as a critical step forward, those I spoke to point out that these are just a few steps among many that need to be taken to improve performance and contribute to greater equity in what has been a largely unfettered pro-market voucher system. At issue in particular is how fast and in what order the government can move ahead on these and a related slate of proposals.

The government’s choice to focus first on requiring for-profit school operators to convert into non-profits has been particularly controversial and has taken center stage in the public and political debates since March. Several aspects of the conversion plan have proven problematic, particularly the issue of ownership of school facilities (which has also been a critical issue among charter school advocates and critics in the United States). Thus, the plan requires both for-profit and not-for profit schools to give up ownership of their school buildings. Since many of these organizations rely on the facilities to generate revenue, the conversion plan has significant legal and financial implications for the school owners as well as those banks and other institutions that have money tied up in school buildings.

Further, the proposal for a new, more centralized selection process has also faced some opposition. Although Chile passed legislation several years ago, banning primary schools from selecting students through their own application processes, for the most part, that ban has not been enforced. Therefore, the new legislation extends the ban to most secondary schools and establishes a new set of reporting requirements that should make it easier to enforce the ban.

Combined with the potential loss of revenue from the elimination of the co-payments that subsidized private subsidized schools have been able to charge parents, all of these proposals have generated a heated political debate since March. Amongst those opposing the proposals have been several powerful constituencies including some members of the Catholic Church (who have large numbers of not-for profit schools that are often highly selective and many of which own their own buildings), the for-profit school owner’s guild (who are very well-connected politically), and new middle class parent groups that have formed because they want to preserve their ability to choose to send their children to selective schools. The result has been a series of protests, ad campaigns, and public statements warning parents that hundreds of schools could be closed, and they could lose their chance to send their children to schools of their choice (all of which reminded me of recent protests in New York City over the newly-elected mayor’s campaign promise to limit the growth of charter schools –DeBlasio and Operator of Charter School Empire do Battle). Thus, as Waissbluth explained it, this first slate of legislative proposals in Chile is managing to incubate a middle class revolt that some worry has the potential to block further reforms.

Despite the controversies, with a number of compromises which include allowing for a very gradual shift in ownership in school buildings and allowing some highly selective schools to continue to screen their students (making them somewhat akin to the highly selective “exam schools” in New York City), the proposals will now go for debate in the Chilean Senate. Some think that the Senate will pass some version of the proposals before the end of the year or the spring at the latest.

Yet, these initial reforms are only a small part of the reform proposals. Committees are already at work developing reports suggesting initiatives to strengthen teacher preparation and the teaching profession as a whole, and a cross-section of 20 institutions presented the government on Monday with “El Plan Maestro” (a play on words suggesting the “Teacher plan” and the “Master plan” simultaneously). The government is expected to present their proposals to strengthen teaching in the coming months.

In relatively short order, the government is also expected to fulfill campaign promises to propose changes to the municipal structure of public schools. These will likely include the development of a position similar to the superintendent in school districts in the United States. Currently, the schools are at least nominally the responsibility of the mayor, though many mayors have not made schools a particular priority.

The most contentious issue – when and how to reform higher education – looms as well. Creating free, high quality higher education has been a key concern of the students who led the protests in 2006 and that ignited this reform cycle in Chile, and many are continuing to press for immediate action. At the same time, others are concerned that pushing for reforms in higher education in particular is so contentious that it could halt the progress on other issues.

In short, Chile may be in a cycle of political negotiations punctuated by protests.   Right now what some see as radical reforms have been proposed, but negotiations have led to some compromises that make political passage possible.  But if the changes end up being too limited or fail to address the core concerns of the students in particular, then students may withdraw their support or take to the streets again.  Further protests could create a backlash that contributes to political stalemates or might create enough space to push slightly more radical reforms that are again likely to be tempered in political negotiation and compromise.   Adding to the pressure, all sides have to take into account the fact that a change in Chilean law about ten years ago means that Presidents can no longer serve consecutive terms. As a consequence, the current President, Michelle Bachelet, has only until the end of this four-year term to accomplish her objectives.

Despite the urgency, however, the evidence from countries like Singapore and Finland suggests that comprehensive efforts to create high-quality education systems takes decades even in countries with relatively stable political environments. Chile has to pursue such efforts in the context of an educational system that was imposed by a violent dictatorship, that has contributed to increased segregation, and that fosters competition rather than cooperation among individuals and organizations.  Given those conditions, it will not be easy to forge the social relationships, common purpose, and cooperation that have supported the development of education systems in countries like Finland. Chile may well transform its educational system, but to do so, it may have to rely on a mix of protest, political negotiation and compromise until it develops the social bonds that can support collective commitment and shared responsibility for education for all.

Thomas Hatch

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