Chile's Bachelet Sinks Her Teeth Into Education Reform

Riot police block an avenue in Santiago during clashes with students in June. (Photo: David Lillo / AFP-Getty Images)

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet gave her full support Monday to legislation creating a new General Law of Education, replacing the existing Pinochet-era law, known as the L.O.C.E. (Ley Orgánica Constitucional de Enseñanza). The move should be a triumph for the thousands of high-school students that have been campaigning for the L.O.C.E.'s reform since March last year. Still, teachers and mayors are not satisfied with the terms of the new law, and call for a more complete reform to the education system. Among their demands are an end to decentralization of the education system, and the creation of an official body to regulate the standard of education in Chile.

Education in Chile operates under a three-part education system. Schools are public, private, or privately owned and subsidized by the state according to the number of pupils. The L.O.C.E. was a Pinochet-era constitutional teaching law that essentially decentralized education in Chile, making it possible for almost anyone to open a school and receive government funding without having to conform to any standard of quality.

Since March last year, students, parents, and teachers have been campaigning for a reform of the L.O.C.E., a campaign that culminated in April and May with a series of huge student strikes and protests.

In March this year, when Bachelet announced a reform of the L.O.C.E., it seemed that students' demands were finally being listened to. On Monday morning, Bachelet met with Education Minister Yasna Provoste, a delegation of high-school students and various parliamentarians to sign off on legislation that will put an end to the LOCE and create a new General Education Law.

The key points of the new law deal with stamping out discrimination and selection in public and state-subsidized schools, a practice that is currently widespread. Under the new law, no school will be able to operate a selection process for students up to ninth grade.

Also central to the General Education Law will be the creation of a National Council for Education, which will replace the Higher Education Council created during the military regime.

The new law will also seek to do away with profiteering in schools, so that only non-profit and municipal organizations will be able to set up an educational institution. Schools will have to meet certain educational standards, and state-subsidized facilities will have to provide detailed accounts of the ways in which government funds are being used.

Existing schools will be given a period of four years to adapt to the new law.

"Today I am keeping a promise with Chile," said Bachelet at the ceremony on Monday. "Over the next few weeks we will carry out the rest of the education agenda, which will answer not only the issue of the regulation of education, but also its financing. Because education is a priority for the more modern and fair education system that we would like to build."

Also present at La Moneda (the presidential palace) were members of the Education Advisory Council, which was created on June 1 last year after student strikes in April and May induced the government to seek a national consensus on education reform. During six months of talks, the body evaluated the situation of education in Chile, and sought to reach a consensus on structural changes to the system. But the talks collapsed in December, when members of the "social block," which comprised of students, teachers, and parents, rejected the Council's final report.

In spite of the council's failure to reach a consensus, all of its 81 members, including the social block, were invited to the ceremony. Still, many of those present felt Bachelet needed to do more to tackle education reform. Jorge Pavez, president of the Teachers' College, was pessimistic about the possibility of real change in Chile's education.

"It is not only people from the political right that have commercial interests in education," said Pavez. "There are also functionaries from the Concertación itself who own schools. We can't keep improvising with this issue."

It now looks as though teachers and students will resume protests later this month, having agreed to do so two weeks ago if the L.O.C.E. reform did not meet with a list of seven requirements. Central to their demands were an end to the decentralization of education, a promise to end discrimination and selection for students of all ages, and the creation of a Superintendence of Education to regulate the quality of education. According to Pavez, these demands have not been met.

"There are more than enough reasons for us to begin protests again," he said. "Now that we know the details of the proposed legislation, we need to work to fight together, because the teachers alone will not be able to improve this situation."

Pavez was not the only one to criticize the L.O.C.E. reform. Renovación Nacional (R.N.) deputy and Education Commission member Maximiniano Errázuriz spoke out against the new law on Monday, saying that it does not go far enough to improve conditions in schools.

"We need to reduce the number of pupils in each class to no more than 30 and improve teachers' pay, because at the moment, in the Metropolitan Region, 76 percent of all teachers are having to teach in more than one school," said Errázuriz. "The excessive publicity in bringing forward this project will give false hope to many people, who will think that just changing the L.O.C.E. can improve the quality of education in Chile."

The proposed legislation was expected to be approved by Congress this week.

From The Santiago Times.