Is the Chilean Student Movement Being Co-opted by Its Government?

Source: The Nation

President Michelle Bachelet’s reforms look good on paper—so why are tens of thousands of students taking to the streets to protest them?

It’s been eight years since Chilean students first took to the streets to demand universal, high-quality, free public education, and though they haven’t yet gotten what they want, they’re far from giving up. In a country where your parents’ income determines the quality of your education, 100,000 people (if you ask the organizers) or 40,000 (if you ask the police) marched down Santiago’s central Alameda on May 8, singing what has become the iconic chant of Chile’s student movement: “Come on, friends! We have to try a little harder. We’re taking to the streets again. Chilean education will not be sold; it will be defended.” (In Spanish, it rhymes.)

The students were marching to reject the proposals put forward by center-left President Michelle Bachelet, who just recently began her second term (because of Chile’s presidential term limits, Bachelet stepped down from the office for four years between her first and second terms). They see her administration’s ideas about how to reform the country’s educational system as a continuation of “the same logic of selling education on the market,” explains Melissa Sepúlveda, president of the University of Chile Student Federation and one of the student movement’s current leaders. “Facing that reality, our only choice is to exert pressure by protesting.”

If there ever was a time for Chilean students to leave their mark on the country’s educational system, that time is now. Michelle Bachelet came to office on March 11 promising education reform as one of the three central priorities of her government—along with a tax reform that will provide $8.2 billion to pay for the education reform, and a constitutional reform that will purge the last vestiges of dictatorship from Chilean democracy. But student leaders are concerned that the government will use the movement’s dynamic slogans as mere window dressing for cosmetic reforms that do little more than lend legitimacy to the country’s current voucher-based education model. With May’s massive march, and a second march on June 10, they sought to prove that they won’t sit back and watch if the policies proposed by the government don’t live up to their expectations.

Chilean students have been seeking substantive education reform since 2006, just months after Michelle Bachelet first took office. Then, in the “Penguin Revolution” named after the white shirts and black jackets of most Chilean high school uniforms, the country’s secondary students organized marches and school occupations to demand free public transportation for students, the elimination of the fee to take the PSU (the Chilean SAT), and high-quality education for all. Bachelet initially tried to suppress the movement, and only when that became politically impossible did she agree to address the students’ concerns. She offered free public transportation to the poorest 20 percent of public school kids, PSU grants for 80 percent of those who took the test and emergency funds to rebuild dilapidated school buildings. She also invited eight high school and eight university students to form part of an eighty-one-member presidential advisory committee on education reform. Despite these gains, Chilean student leaders say she never took serious steps to address the fundamental inequality in the Chilean educational system.

That failure is what brought students back onto the streets in 2011 and 2012, when hundreds of thousands of high school and college students marched down the Alameda, occupied their schools and even went on hunger strikes to demand education reform. Those protests forced then-President Sebastián Piñera—whose administration was “ideologically opposed to the student movement’s ideas,” according to Patricia Schaulsohn, a lawyer and education analyst at the think tank Educación 2020—to address the issue of burgeoning student debt: He replaced student bank loans that carried 6 percent interest rates with government loans with only 2 percent interest.

Beyond these concrete changes, it’s hard to overestimate the impact the sustained protests have had on Chile’s political system. They’ve placed education at the center of an evolving national discussion about the country’s future. Thus, in the November 2013 elections, all nine presidential candidates included education reform in their platforms. Also, four former student leaders, who had once led marches down the Alameda, were elected to the Chilean Congress. Camila Vallejo, one of these former leaders and current MPs, said in her acceptance speech that Chilean conservative parties are “in the ICU” because of the progressive resurgence brought about by the student movement. And President Michelle Bachelet came to office promising to do what she didn’t during her first administration: overhaul Chile’s educational system, from its universities all the way down to its preschools.

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