Chilean private subsidized schools operate in a radically different environment from charter schools in the US. Since the imposition of the voucher-based system during the Pinochet dictatorship, virtually anyone, at any time, for any reason, could start and run a school. Furthermore, up until recent reforms, those schools could continue to operate largely without any evidence that students were learning or even that the schools were offering an education that complied with the legal regulations. Under these conditions, the percentage of students in municipal schools (so-called because they are run by municipalities much like district-run public schools in the US) has dropped significantly over the past 20 years, from over 55% of the student population in 1990 to under 40% in 2011. At the same time, enrollment has risen in private, subsidized schools to over 50% of the student population, with about 7% of students attending non-subsidized private schools that receive no public funding.
As Gregory Elacqua, Director del Instituto de Políticas Públicas, explained to me, several different kinds of both for-profit and not-for-profit private, subsidized school operators have emerged in Chile. These include a number of school operators with backgrounds in education or related fields who often start a single school and then may expand to a few others. Among these operators are former teachers – or now the sons and daughters of former teachers who inherited the schools their parents started. In some cases, the founders were kicked out of teaching in the public schools during the Pinochet regime largely because of their left-leaning politics. (In other words, even members of the political left took the opportunity to create schools in a system generally assumed to reflect the policies of the political right.) Organizations related to the Catholic Church have also opened and operate many private, subsidized schools. But a wide variety of other individuals and businesses with relatively little in the way of an education background have also started schools and networks of schools. These include an owner of a chain of restaurants and bars who also decided to start a network of schools (see Elaqua and colleague’s Scaling up in Chile for a description of several different kinds of private, subsidized school operators).
Despite the considerable differences in terms of what it takes to open and operate these kinds of schools, what I learned in my conversations in Santiago suggested numerous parallels in the issues for charter schools in the US and for private, subsidized schools in Chile. For one thing, the voucher system in Chile grew out of the work of Chilean economists, often referred to as the “Chicago Boys,” who were trained by University of Chicago economists Milton Friedman and Alan Harberger. Friedman, in particular, is also credited by many as inspiring work on vouchers in the US. Further, approaches to choice in both contexts reflects a basic set of assumptions: if schools are not successful in educating students, parents will not be satisfied, they and their children will choose to attend different schools, and the poorly performing schools will close.
Several key issues can interfere with this relatively straightforward logic, however. First, in order to have a choice, spots in schools that offer a higher quality education need to be available and those schools need to be near enough so that parents and students can get to the schools. While this seems obvious, many students have very limited school options in areas with small populations or that are not well-served by public transportation (e.g. rural areas and many urban areas of concentrated poverty). Nonetheless, school choice policies do not always take these factors into account. Evaluations of the school choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States, for example, found that almost one half of the school districts that were required to offer school choice at the middle school level and about two-thirds at the high school level did not have any schools for parents to choose that were not already failing. Second, parents and students need to get information on school quality in a timely, accessible and clear way. Again, this can be much more difficult than it sounds, as the same evaluations of NCLB in the US also found that many parents did not get this information until after they were supposed to choose schools for their children. Third, even with good information on quality, parents and students do not always use quality as the primary basis for their choice of school. This can be particularly problematic if students from different backgrounds choose schools for different reasons, as may be the case in New York City (see High school choice in New York City).
As the private school options have increased, Chilean policymakers have also devoted considerable attention to making understandable information on quality and choice available to parents. Nonetheless, the data is mixed on the extent to which parents base their decisions on that information, as distance from the school, among other factors, also may be highly influential (see I would walk 500 (miles if it paid)). Complicating parents’ choices in Chile, up until recent years, private, subsidized schools have been able to charge “co-payments” and some schools have been able to select their own students. While the recent reform proposals described in our last post would largely eliminate these advantages, these factors have made it harder for parents and students from lower-income backgrounds or who do not fit the criteria of the most selective schools to get into the schools of their choice (see When schools are the ones that choose).
Although the extent to which Chile’s choice system has contributed to educational improvements remains a matter of debate, using PISA results as a yardstick, Chilean students have improved their performance, but segregation has increased and economic inequality remains extremely high. As the debates over choice continue, some are turning to a focus on how to ensure quality of all schools, regardless of levels of public financing or extent of public or private ownership. As Bárbara Eyzaguirre – a member of the previous Chilean administration who worked on the development of new standards – explained it, while there has been choice in Chile, it has been too easy for both public and private schools that are not doing well to continue to function. In fact, schools in Chile have not needed to maintain a minimum number of students in order to stay open, and in many areas private schools are able to attract students even if they are not performing that well (providing little incentive for them to improve).
As a consequence of concerns about quality and persistently failing schools, over the past 20 years Chile has worked to develop a quality assurance system (more on this in a future post) and raise standards across all schools. Furthermore, many successful private, subsidized schools have also attempted to expand their operations and to develop networks of schools. Elaqua’s analysis in Scaling up in Chile raises the possibilities that larger networks of schools might provide a more effective education than single schools or smaller networks. One explanation might be that these networks have the advantages of scale, though it is also possible that more successful schools or school owners are more likely to join or start networks.
The challenges of scale in Chile also sound similar to the issues encountered by charter operators in the US. For example, Eyzaguirre, originally trained as a psychologist, has worked with colleagues to create a small network of not-for-profit private, subsidized, schools. The schools serve students from lower-income families, with what she describes as a relatively traditional approach. It’s an approach that focuses on “the basics”, includes large class sizes (as many as 45 students to a class in some cases), and takes into account the need to operate with limited resources so that the schools can be replicated in other underserved areas. Even with good results and commitment to expand, however, the network has to deal with the challenges of finding or building and paying for school facilities – another critical issue for charter schools in the US. In addition, the network has plans to expand to 10 schools, but they face a human capital problem in limited numbers of teachers who are well-prepared to teach in their schools. In response, the network has developed their own professional development and training programs (as charter operators like KIPP have begun to do in the States). In the process, the focus of the work expands from student learning to adult learning, organizational management, and quality assurance – the traditional functions of the districts, municipalities and other bureaucracies that many charter advocates hoped that they would escape.