Since May, Chile has been rocked by sustained protests, occupations and strikes by students and their supporters in a huge struggle for free, public education.
The fight is part of the struggle to overturn the legacy of the 1973-'90 Pinochet dictatorship.
From the very beginning, students and educators were an important target for the dictatorship.
General Augusto Pinochet led a US-backed military coup against the elected left-wing government of president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.
Thousands of people were killed and disappeared. Education was considered, or at least treated, as an enemy of the neoliberal system Pinochet was introducing.
Why not? After all, capitalism has always had an uncomfortable relationship with universal quality education.
Pinochet’s first concern ― which reflects a recurrent theme in this uncomfortable relationship ― was to control education as tightly as possible.
Decisions about financing, teachers and curriculum were to be determined by the central government.
This ensured that schools and universities limited learning to the necessary basics, and avoided promoting a culture of questioning.
Rigorous control and a direct hand in the educational process of production were the watchwords of the early years of dictatorship.
At first, the dictatorship concentrated its education policies on privatising and deregulating the productive sectors of the economy. This caused a flood of foreign capital, a plunge in industrial production and a huge rise in unemployment.
Having cleared the way for big capital, decapitated the opposition movements and facing the growing social polarisation affected by such policies, the military regime turned to policies aimed at stabilising the neoliberal economy on the basis of export growth.
Of course, firmly straitjacketed by its neoliberal convictions, this implied filling the role assigned to it in the global economy as provider of natural resources.
The newly deregulated environment provided ample opportunities for growth outside Chile's traditionally significant copper industry.
Sales of fruit, fish, wood pulp and paper grew to about 40% of exports by the end of the 1970s.
Some diversification occurred, but by the end of the dictatorship, over 85% of Chile’s exports remained those based on natural resources.
By the 1980s, the world had followed suit. Chile’s place in the global neoliberal economy required a new emphasis in education policy.
The education arena presented a number of opportunities and challenges.
It still remained a major burden on a regime that prided itself on slashing public spending. It also represented relatively untouched terrain from the point of view of the market and business profit.
But the organisation of curriculum and “educational achievement” was at odds with the needs of an economy that required more technical personnel, while distinguishing this from mass schooling for the growing number of the excluded poor.
How do you organise education to provide for the high-end skills needed to fill employment growth in the unproductive sectors of the economy like marketing and financial services ― where the bulk of Chile’s growth occurred during the decade from the mid-70s ― while also providing education to a majority bound for an increasingly de-skilled workforce or unemployment?
Pinochet kept up the neoliberal rhetoric, stating his goal was "to make Chile not a nation of proletarians, but a nation of entrepreneurs".
But the reality was found in a plan to further institutionalise educational inequality.
In 1980, the regime enacted two decrees, together known as the Organic Constitutional Law of Education (LOCE).
The law decentralised the administration of education.
It handed more than 300 local municipalities management powers of kindergarten, primary, and secondary schools. It retained overall national regulation, in particular over curriculum and quality control.
The LOCE also introduced a voucher funding system based on average monthly student attendance, to both publicly and privately managed schools.
The regime also encouraged competition for enrolments. It promoted the idea that parents were getting increased choice and that such competition would force public schools to get better.
To further improve competition, teachers in the public system were stripped of their public servant status. They were subjected to the deregulated labour market, where wage fixing was no longer centralised and labour action limited by law.
Industry was also given incentives to manage vocational education.
To regulate all this for quality, the national government set up the SIMCE (System for the Measurement of Educational Quality), where national testing took centre stage.
To teachers, other educators and students in Australia, this all sounds frighteningly familiar.
The 1980s education reform managed to slash national education spending by 18% over the next decade.
This forced municipal governments to use their own funds, which were limited in the poorer parts of town.
The invisible hand of the market, as usual, favoured those already privileged. The education divide widened.
Before the 1980 reform, about 80% of Chilean students attended public schools. By 1997, just over a fifth of these had shifted to the private system, scrambling to stay in the game.
Not all private schools were created equal, however.
Education ministry figures in 1998 showed about 9% of enrolments were in fully private elite schools.
Students in private schools relying more heavily on public funding could find themselves paying for very little in return.
Chile’s middle-class parents have been sacrificing themselves in hope that a little bit of private education might go a long way. But they couldn't keep up with the top.
Recent figures show the elite private schools charge fees more than 10 times the amount of the value of the government voucher.
It’s not just public schools in the poorest neighbourhoods, but municipal (state) schools in general that have become run down. They are forced to adopt shortened school days and eliminate entire subjects from the curriculum.
Teachers became demoralised and some became targets for rich schools seeking the best educators they can pay for.
It pays off for the wealthy.
In the latest national tests, the maths scores for fourth graders were 35% higher for students from the richest fifth of the population.
Like Pinochet and neoliberals everywhere, Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera is acutely interested in education’s place in the reform agenda.
Pinera has declared the battle for economic growth will “be won or lost in the classroom”.
Julia Gillard, then speaking as education minister to the Australian Industry Group in 2007, said likewise: "In today’s world, the areas covered by my portfolios ― early childhood education and childcare, schooling, training, universities, social inclusion, employment participation and workplace cooperation ― are all ultimately about the same thing: productivity.
“So while my portfolios can be a mouthful, I’ll be happy to be referred to simply as the Minister for Productivity."
Today’s financial crisis-hit neoliberal world holds out much less hope and begs far more anxiety from the world’s “middle classes”.
Neoliberal governments have the tough job of deepening the same economic policies that led to the global financial crisis in order to stay above water ― and at the same time assure the public the future will be brighter, at least for their kids.
The emphasis on neoliberal policies leaves very little room for the need to assure the public.
Education and “social inclusion” are at the centre of this difficult sell.
Part of this means raising spending in education and early childhood. This can be done while increasing the pattern of privatisation ― handing money to a private sector increasingly empowered by the destruction of teachers' pay, conditions and solidarity.
In this way, Pinera promises more funding and “incentives” to produce better teachers. Parents, teachers and students are increasingly the target of deliberate divide and rule tactics.
Pinera has promised 60 “schools of excellence” for the bright children of the poor. With the promise of an out for some at least, neoliberal governments hope to focus anger on under-performing schools, rather than under-performing governments.
In Chile, however, students, their families and teachers have provided an example of the alternative to all this madness. They have joined together and stood up.
Over the past few months, Chilean students have occupied their classrooms and schools, gone on hunger strikes, performed run-a-thons, kiss-a-thons, dances and just about everything else you can imagine, helping to put on the agenda what to date we in Australia only dare whisper about in our classrooms, schools and communities.
In their recent letter to Pinera, the CONFECH (Chilean Federation of Students) condemned this “deregulated and individualistic system”, they deplored the sale of education as a “consumer good” and they demanded the state “guarantee education as a social right”.
The students of Chile are demanding an “end to private sector financing of education” and an end to all profiteering from primary, secondary and tertiary education.
They want a guarantee of access to higher education for students “from the most vulnerable sectors” of society and a guarantee of quality not based on testing.
They are also demanding a guarantee of the cultural and linguistic rights of indigenous people.
They are calling for the wholesale rebuilding of a national public education system funded by the state and unconnected to private enterprise.
One of the slogans seen on posters perhaps best sums it up: “Education is not for profit, our dreams are no one’s property.”