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Decommodifying education in Chile? Bachelet's reforms in the face of persistent educational inequalities

published 5 May 2014 updated 5 May 2014
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On March 11th 2014, Michelle Bachelet assumed the presidency of Chile for a second term in her political life.  An educational focus framed much of the electoral debate that was central to her campaign for re-election, as it figures prominently in her “three in-depth reforms,” alongside taxation and constitutional reforms.  The 2006 and 2011 Chilean student protests played a crucial role bringing education to the forefront of the Chilean political debates.

The Chilean education system is one of the most commodified and liberalised in the world.  Under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), Chile became the laboratory for the implementation of the market-based reforms that remain in place to this day.  The main feature of these reforms is the voucher system, which transfers State resources to schools, in accordance with demand, and irrespective of whether or not schools are public or private. The reforms seek to provide families with the complete freedom to choose schools and to stimulate competition between schools for students and resources. This higher level of competition is expected to improve the quality of, and promote efficiency in, education.

However, the main effect of thirty years of market-based policies in education has been a huge increase in education inequalities. Such inequalities represent in fact the most important challenge that the new Chilean government faces in the education realm.

Why does the market model promote inequalities?

Most analysts concur that inequality is one of the main problems that continues to affect the Chilean education system.  It leads to high levels of school segregation and stratification, differences in performance between socio-economically diverse students, and inequitable opportunities in in terms of access to higher education.  Inequalities in the Chilean education sector can, in part, be explained by existing inequalities within Chilean society. However, as we develop below, the education market actually has an intensifying effect on the existing socio-economic gap.

Education market advocates affirm that competition between schools for resources, stimulated by the freedom of parents to choose schools, creates an adequate structure of incentives for improving the quality of the education system.  This assumption is based on the principle that the demand for schools that provide a better service and have better academic results will always be higher. These ‘better’ schools are usually then rewarded with increased funding, after which they are expected to continue improving the quality of the services that they offer. By contrast, those schools that do worse will remain in lower demand, and as a consequence will receive fewer resources; and ultimately also end up having to close their doors permanently.

In practise, this theoretical market function faces a much more complex reality. Existing research, in the case of the Chilean system, as well as research conducted in other educational systems that have experimented with market mechanisms, shows that:

Families’ preferences are diverse: Parents do not always choose schools based on academic and teaching quality criteria.  Very often, their choices are informed by factors such as distance to school, safety or social composition

‘Flawed’ information: There is a social bias in the capacity to obtain and use the information available on school quality to enable school choice, with the more vulnerable families having more difficulties to access to such information.

Adverse selection: Many schools try to select academically-skilled students that are more favourable in terms of improving their market position (i.e. by doing so, schools will get better academic results and thus are likely to be in higher demand) without necessarily improving the quality of the education they offer. This ‘adverse selection’ practice is clearly conducive to school segregation. In addition, the legal possibility in Chile for schools to charge an additional fee (on top of funds obtained through vouchers) legitimises the selective practices of many schools, and reduces the real capacity of poorer families to choose.

The strategic behaviour on the part of schools and families, especially those with a higher socio-economic status, described above, further entrenches educational inequalities between different social groups.

Since the restoration of democracy in 1990, the different Chilean governments, aware of these challenges within the Chilean education system, have promoted a series of reforms and targeted programmes focused on improving quality and equity within education, but without questioning the existing market model in the system. Meanwhile, huge resources that have been allocated to tackle these problems have not led to any substantial improvement in terms of equity. They have also not contributed to appeasing the growing social discontent with this educational model.

Will Bachelet’s new Government de-commodify education?

Notwithstanding the high expectations generated by the political debates on education, shortly before the new government came to office there was still great uncertainty about the depth of the changes that Bachelet would be able to bring about.  In recent weeks, however, there has been a succession of announcements by Bachelet’s new Government about the planned educational reforms. On the 18 March 18, the new minister for education, Nicolás Eyzaguirre, summarised these proposals when he appeared before the education committee of the Chilean congress. He announced the de-municipalisation of education, the firm prohibition of the selection of students by schools, the elimination of shared financing, and the prohibition of profit-making in education. These announcements were optimistically received by a majority of those who have been calling for improvements and changes in the Chilean education system.

However, the new government’s announced education reforms continue to raise certain doubts with regard to their design and potential effects.  In this respect, it is worth asking whether or not these reforms will be sufficient for tackling the segregation and socio-economic inequalities entrenched in the Chilean education system with real dynamism.  One of the main criticisms levelled against the announced reforms is the lack of an overall plan for the education system that goes beyond the changes centred on the historically more controversial aspects, such as profit-making in education.  Additionally, the fact of not having proposed changes for the per capita financing system (i.e. the voucher) raises doubts as to whether, behind the announced plans for reforms, the new government really intends to dismantle school selection and competence practices that currently govern the Chilean education system.

Over and above the doubts raised by the announced proposals, it seems clear that the different players in the education field, especially students, have been capable of leading and transforming the education debate in Chile in a relatively short period of time.  It is within the framework of this on-going debate that, once again, political strategies, including the collective action of both the students’ movement – which has already organized a big demonstration to challenge the ambiguity of the Education Minister discourse on May the 8th– and those who are opposed to the reform – including the numerous private interests in education – will play a key role in gauging whether or not this process will achieve meaningful change.  Though it was previously known as the ‘laboratory’ for neoliberal education reform during the last decades, Chile is currently setting the stage for a debate on “education de-commodification” that is bound to have repercussions far beyond its borders.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.