With banners, signs, flags, and noisemakers, 40,000 students and teachers have taken to the streets of Santiago, Chile in recent weeks. They are united by one goal: to express their discontent at the lack of quality education in poor neighborhoods and its effects on widening the inequality gap in Chile. The protestors are marching through a city filled with gleaming skyscrapers that house multinational corporations such as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Company—one only needs a quick glimpse of Chile’s capital to see how far this country has come in terms of economic development. Despite such growth, the lack of quality education in disadvantaged regions, and the socioeconomic inequality this perpetuates, threatens to undermine the progress Chile has made.
Breathing is Not Enough
Chile’s economic growth in recent decades has been fueled by the development of its market economy, which has allowed for an increase in exports such as copper, the signing of twenty-two free trade agreements with sixty countries, and the attraction of foreign direct investment. This growth has produced tangible effects: Chile’s per capita income increased from $6,185 in 1992 to $17,310 in 2011, and its poverty rate decreased by more than half from 32.9 percent in 1992 to 14.4 percent in 2011. Today, Chile leads Latin America in terms of income per capita, economic freedom, competitiveness, and low corruption.
However, these gains have not been evenly distributed throughout society. Chile has the most unequal distribution of income among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Also, its Gini index, which measures inequality using income distribution, is higher than the Latin American average. These facts in the face of Chile’s exponential economic growth appear to be paradoxical. In an interview with the HPR, Paula Molina, a Chilean journalist at BBC Mundo and Radio Cooperativa Chile, described how “economic growth can take people out of poverty, which is like being underwater and not being able to breathe. Economic growth in Chile has indeed helped people to breathe. But this growth has not done enough about inequality.”
Protests and Reforms
This lack of improvement in shrinking the inequality gap coupled with a rise in popular discontent and frustration explains the surge of unrest and protests Chile has experienced in recent years. Roberto Matus, the CEO of the Chilean-American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham Chile), described the Chilean economy as one that is currently experiencing “growing pains.” He told the HPR, “With Chile’s growth, we’ve had a growing middle class. With this growing middle class, there are expectations and when they are not met, there is discontent.” The 2006 “March of the Penguins” protests were led by 790,000 students demanding quality education, but the movement quickly encompassed other demographic groups, becoming a protest against inequality in general. Molina has extensively covered these protests. She observed how “even for a country that is growing, when inequality persists, it hurts people and takes hope away from them.”
One way to mitigate this problem of socioeconomic inequality is by resolving the disparity in the quality of education between schools in affluent regions and schools in poorer ones. Mariana Aylwin, former Chilean Minister of Education, described to the HPR how “the most brutal form of segregation in Chile is territorial segregation. This country is divided by social classes and each class lives in distinct regions.” In the poor regions, schools suffer from mediocre curricula, overworked and underpaid teachers, and lack of resources, among other problems. The low quality of education leaves students in poor neighborhoods without the skills and knowledge that their more fortunate peers can use to succeed in life.
Therefore, to address this problem, the Chilean government under the direction of President Michelle Bachelet proposed three major reforms in May 2014: the end of for-profit schools, the end of selectivity, and the end of copay. These reforms will hypothetically end discrimination of students based on need and will prevent certain schools from charging families money in addition to receiving funds from the government. These schools, which are private and partly subsidized by the government, can charge families anywhere from ten US dollars to over a hundred in additional payment. This therefore segregates students based on their ability to pay. Bachelet wishes to address this and make quality education affordable for all, regardless of socioeconomic background.
However, these reforms have not been universally accepted. Some decry the reforms as being ineffective, detrimental, overly ambitious, or simply a diversion from more urgent areas of concern. Some, like Aylwin, suggest that focusing on teacher training, investing in preschool education, and reforming specific municipal schools would be a better use of government resources. She believes that issues such as selection and ‘end of profit’ are not as urgent and will do little to address the problem. Gisela Karow, Director of Communications of Aptus Chile, told the HPR how “education policy must be coherent and focused on the quality of the teaching, which is the heart of education. The changes must happen inside the classroom in order for them to have an immediate effect.” Aptus Chile is a non-profit with the goal of improving the quality of education through direct, on-the-ground work such as evaluating specific schools, offering training for teachers, and distributing learning materials.
There are also others like Molina who believe that the problem is more systemic. The Chilean private schools that are partly subsidized by the government depend on a voucher-like system in which the owners get paid by the government for the quantity of students, not necessarily the quality of the education. Therefore, Molina believes that the underperforming schools are not “necessarily run by evil people. The owners are just following incentives in the system and playing by the rules. It’s just that those incentives are not working for education and need to be changed.”
On the Horizon
Although there are a myriad of opinions as to how exactly Chile should address this problem, one thing is clear: the importance of a quality education. In an interview with the HPR, Pablo Zamorano, a Chilean member of Harvard’s Class of 2018, said, “The role of education is fundamental because students are not born with total knowledge. Everything in life is learned. Everything requires training and hard work.” Pablo has been recognized nationally in Chile for being the first student to be admitted to Harvard College from a Chilean public school. Pablo was born in one of Santiago’s poorest neighborhoods and his family struggled financially. Despite this, he took advantage of every opportunity he could outside of his school such as conducting microbiology research at a local university and teaching himself English. He also founded and led his English debate team in school, becoming the first Chilean public school student to participate in the World Debate Championship.
Pablo’s story is encouraging and shows just how instrumental a quality education can be in overcoming socioeconomic barriers. A good education can become the foundation on which disadvantaged students can shrink the gap between them and their more fortunate peers. There is no doubt that a higher quality education can allow students to become more knowledgeable and more productive, and therefore more likely to attain higher-paying, skilled jobs. This in turn can have positive effects on their own children and thus benefit future generations as well. Manuel Sepúlveda, Education Policy Researcher at Educación 2020, told the HPR, “Education is fundamental in order to overcome inequality. The problem we have in Chile is that the education system is reproducing and even deepening inequality. This is a problem that is strongly related to one’s natural rights because quality education should be a right.” Educación 2020 works with both the government and underperforming schools in the hopes that by the year 2020, Chilean students of all backgrounds will have access to quality education.
In addition, Aylwin observed how “education can be a factor of social integration that allows society to become more integrated and more diverse. In the poorest sectors [of Chile], there is a lack of education and lack of knowledge of the world—a world that is large and diverse. The young need to integrate themselves in modern society and not be segregated. Education can open this horizon.” There is no doubt that Chile is asking itself the right questions when it comes to addressing this issue. Although the exact path to take in order to achieve universal quality in education may be in dispute, at least the end goal of using this to mitigate socioeconomic inequality is clear.