The slow march to education reform tests Chileans' patience
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The slow march to education reform tests Chileans' patience

Last Wednesday, as 750,000 Chilean students were preparing for their first day of school, President Michelle Bachelet and Education Minister Nicolás Eyzaguirre officially initiated the school year in a ceremony at a public all-girls school in Santiago.

At the event, Eyzaguirre gave a speech assessing the government’s accomplishments in educational policies and offered a preview of what Chileans can expect in 2015 regarding the planned reform of the education system — an ongoing process since 2006.

“This year we will be preparing for what’s coming ahead, because in 2016 we will make a leap toward a truly cost-free school system. Public schools that are partially paid by parents will be free and … we will start implementing a cost-free policy in higher education,” Eyzaguirre said.

Even though three bills related to education reform are supposed to enter Chile’s Congress this month, they may be postponed until April, giving the government more time to prepare comprehensive supporting documents to present in Congress. Eyzaguirre told a local radio station that the bills would be discussed once the legislative spaces for it are available, after Congress works through the bills currently on its agenda.

Outside the halls of Congress, however, recent political scandals regarding businessmen and politicians may postpone or take attention away from the slow process of reforming Chile’s educational system.

Since Bachelet’s first term (2006-2010), education reform has been one of the biggest and most awaited promises of her administration. Last year saw a landmark achievement when Congress approved its first two bills — one regarding improvements in pre-school institutions, and another that will restructure the public education system.

What’s yet to come

The next step in changing the current education system is threefold; modifying the administration of public schools, creating a new career path for teachers and implementing a free higher education system. The first two initiatives will be discussed during the first semester of 2015 and the last one in the second semester.

Public schools are currently under the jurisdiction of districts, a legacy of General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The resources available to schools depend on the resources each district has to offer — meaning that schools located in poor districts have fewer resources (and opportunities) than those in rich areas.

The bill currently in front of legislators will place the administration of public schools back under government management in a bid to reduce the inequality gap.

The higher education system will also face substantial changes. New institutions to regulate colleges and universities will be created and two public universities will be built in southern Chile.

For students to study for free, however, they will be required to pass a minimum of subjects and finish their career within a certain period of time.

Meanwhile, teachers will see their responsibilities and workload change, as the government aims to implement a National Teaching Policy (Política Nacional Docente) that values the labor and hard work of teachers nationwide. The government will also introduce a new evaluation system for teachers that wish to work in the public system, to ensure they have the knowledge necessary to practice the profession. At the same time, teachers’ workloads will be reduced and their salaries readjusted.

The debate has given rise to much speculation about how these measures will affect higher education, municipal schools and teachers.

Valentina Saavedra, president of the Universidad de Chile’s Student Federation, has already publicly criticized the proposals regarding higher education.

“The problem with this proposal [cost-free higher education] is that it will end up being a scholarship, something one can lose at any moment, and when you run the risk of losing something it stops being a right because it is not guaranteed,” Saavedra said.

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