Lessons from Fighting Privatized Public Education in Chile

Written by Daniel Fox

This February, some of us were lucky enough to meet some Chilean Anarchists who gave a talk about lessons from the education struggle in Chile where there has been a massive student- and society-wide movement for free public education during the past decade.

Chile’s schools, like much of its society, were privatized by the US-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s through the creation of a privatized market in education. The key part of this was the creation of a voucher system where privately run schools—charter schools—could receive a certain amount of public funding per student. This, along with an amendment that allowed such schools to charge tuition and fees, has created a “pay to play” education system in Chile, where schools are ranked by test scores and are some of the most unequal and segregated in the world.

Students clash with riot police during a demonstration against the government, to demand changes in the public state education system in Santiago August 28, 2012 (Reuters / Eliseo Fernandez)

Another way to look at this is that it took a US-backed dictatorship in Chile to create the privatized education system currently being proposed in legislatures across the United States.

But since the early 2000s there has been a growing resistance to this privatization in Chile culminating in the mass mobilizations of 2013. On April 11th, 1 million people in of a country with 17 million inhabitants were marching in the capital of Santiago.

How did this happen? Our anarchist friends from Chile outlined how students built a radical mass movement in a few key steps:

  1. From requests, elections, and politics to the ‘movement tactics’ of direct action and direct democracy. Where do students have the most power? In their ability to disrupt schools. It is a lot easier to get 500 students to walk out, strike, and even to occupy a school than it is to get the same number to come to a School Board meeting. This started to happen in the early 2000s as students pushed through their fears and began acting directly. To make this possible students in each school started using assemblies—mass meetings where decisions were made collectively—which are an critical way to meaningfully support and continue such actions. By using what the anarchists call “direct action” and “direct democracy” the movement had awakened to its own power. It was no longer begging but growing into a force to be reckoned with.
  2. From fighting against something to fighting for something. In 2004 there was a draconian new education bill that helped launch a coordinated mass uprising of high school students, including marches, walkouts, and occupations. While they were successful in killing the bill, without a positive program organized among them, the movement couldn’t change the course of the broader trends they were fighting against. This was incorporated by Chileans in the next wave of struggles. It is also worth noting that Chile has the additional resource of many schools run directly by working class communities, serving as a counter model of liberatory community controlled education–however imperfect–but also inspirations for the more creative side of direct action and direct democracy.
  3. Leverage. In Chile, anarchists saw that despite the massive disruptive power of coordinated country-wide protests in schools, this wasn’t effecting the economy in the present. The ruling class could wait out the students, also giving rise to the possibility of a re-election of a Socialist Party Presidential candidate who when previously in power talked a lot about improving education but in fact continued the direction set in place during the dictatorship. In order to broaden the power of their movement, the most recent wave of protests were also coordinated with a dockworker strike of Chile’s main ports—through which 70% of the goods enter the country—as well as actions in the copper mines, a crucial export sector. This direction is highly promising in Chile, and was created by building links across society by talking about what society should be, what the economy should be, and who they should benefit.

Just like in the US, the economy is becoming increasingly concentrated into a massive sector of low wage, sub-contracted jobs with a smaller number of increasingly well-paid positions. This too is a link that needs to made in the US—our education system is about what our society should be. This is also why we at Classroom Struggle are so focused on providing positive models of social justice and community control over our education, because the status quo is not defendable. To stop the privatization of our educational system we need to have a vision worth fighting for. Currently our education system reproduces the inequities of society. We want education to be a force for fighting against inequity and for justice. We also believe our task of keeping public education public, and moving it towards community control and social justice is easier than the fight in Chile. After all, in Chile, the ruling class is not only the Chilean wealthy but also the ruling class interests all over the world invested in resource extraction and privatization there.

People march during a protest by students demanding access to free quality public education in Santiago, Chile, on August 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Aliosha Marquez)
People march during a protest by students demanding access to free quality public education in Santiago, Chile, on August 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Aliosha Marquez)

Two final ideas from their talk and then some take aways:

First, in Chile like in the US, movements are constantly facing the threat of co-optation. A constant message from within and without the movement is that in giving up their power to politicians, foundations, laws, new union leadership, socialist parties, ballot initiatives, or whatever, that they can get a free, quality public education that serves their interest with less work. We all wish that was possible, for more is better, and the easier the better. However, our friends from Chile push us to realize that if we give up our power we cannot get what we want. Hence the importance of organizing the base, exercising power in schools and in the streets, sharing and debating, and coming to the next stage of learning as a movement, for the movement as well as individuals learn through experience, reflection, and analysis.

Second, is the idea of a “right” vs. a “social right”. While this may sound philosophical, this difference is actually critically important, and something I had never heard before. What’s the difference? A “right” is what we all deserve as human beings—clean air, water, free education, health care, and so on. However, a “social right” is a right that we don’t only deserve as human beings but that our community should have control over determining what a right is. According to this distinction, the black, or Native, or Latino community in Minneapolis should not only have a right to a free quality public education but a free quality public education they control. And while most of us want to live in a multicultural society, and have to, I believe figuring out what community/worker control and social justice means is a challenge we face if we want to realistically transform public education for the better.

Ok. Some final take aways!
Privatized education does not work for the vast majority of people in Chile, it will not work for most of us here, either.

Switching to the movement tactics of direct action and direct democracy is the way forward for our movement, and we can already see students leading the way. For example, see last year’s walkouts at South and Hopkins High School and the recent walkout at St Paul Central.

Educators, like students, have the most power AT SCHOOL. This is where we have relationships with all the constituents we need to fight—students, parents, and communities. This is where we understand the dynamics and can not only resist but propose solutions and organize against privatization and for community control and social justice.

It seems to me that more and more in the US people are beginning to lose their fear, which is another way of saying that hope is on its way! Lets be the change we want to see in the world…

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