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CHILE: Teachers and Students Fight New Education Law

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Apr 3 2009 (IPS) - Teachers and students marched in protest against a new education law passed by the Chilean parliament nearly three years after the so-called “penguin revolution,” named for the uniforms of the secondary school students who led it.

On Thursday morning, representatives of the National Teachers Association gathered with university and secondary school students in the Plaza de Armas in the Chilean capital, at the start of the demonstration. But before the speeches began, a small group of people wearing hoods threw bottles and stones, leaving six carabineros (uniformed military police) injured.

The protesters then marched – without official permission and amid scuffles with the police – to the Education Ministry building near the Palacio de La Moneda, the seat of government, where they delivered a letter. Forty-seven people were arrested, including two teachers.

The president of the National Teachers’ Association, Jaime Gajardo, pronounced the nationwide teachers’ strike that accompanied the protest “a success,” with 90 percent of teachers participating, while the Undersecretary of Education, Cristián Martínez, regretted the acts of violence and said that only 22 percent, or 39,000 of the country’s teachers, participated in the demonstration.

The controversial law, which replaces the Organic Constitutional Law on Education (LOCE) enacted by the late former dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) just one day before he stepped down, has been rejected from its inception by teachers’ unions and student groups because it is not the structural reform they hoped for.

But what angered teachers the most was the last article approved by parliament, Article 46, which allows university graduates without teaching qualifications to teach subjects related to their degree in secondary schools for up to five years, upon application by a school’s governing body.

“This is going to further undermine our job security,” Gajardo said on Thursday, stating that “university graduates must not only have knowledge but also teaching skills.”

The Teachers’ Association and lawmakers are discussing how to challenge the measure in the constitutional court, as well as asking President Michelle Bachelet to veto it.

This provision “is a legal denial, in the sight of society, of the existence of pedagogy as a specialty. It undercuts the foundations of education departments and of policies for the improvement and the accreditation of teaching skills and methods,” Juan Eduardo García-Huidobro, dean of the Faculty of Education at the private Alberto Hurtado University, told IPS.

It also means that university graduates who cannot find employment in their own fields will be able to rotate into the education system, said the expert, who presided the advisory council set up by Bachelet in June 2006 to placate the historic student strike that took place that year.

In an attempt to solve the temporary problem of the lack of teachers in certain subjects, graduates in any discipline have been granted permission to work as teachers, García-Huidobro complained.

“In every country concerned about doing the right thing in education, exactly the opposite is happening: the teaching profession is being strengthened, and mechanisms are being put in place to attract the best young people and to keep qualified teachers within the education system,” he said.

The law was approved the day after the Education Ministry announced the results of the first “Inicia” test, taken on a voluntary basis by 1,994 graduates of teacher training courses from 39 institutions. Minister Mónica Jiménez herself admitted the results were “poor.”

“We found that the results were not good. We set five types of tests, and the percentage of correct answers was not above 50 percent,” the minister said.

Some experts say that Article 46 is only one of several problems with the new law, while others have welcomed the bill’s passage.

Among the latter is the head of the Centre for Comparative Studies of Educational Systems and Policies at the private Diego Portales University, José Joaquín Brunner, who says the law “provides a new institutional foundation for schools.”

The education bill was drafted after the student strike in 2006, and was informed by proposals from the advisory council headed by García-Huidobro, and introduced in parliament by the government in April 2007.

But the original text, which banned for-profit schools and prohibited student selection, was modified several times due to political pressures from the rightwing opposition as well as from the centre-left governing coalition.

As a result, the law will not reverse the processes of decentralisation and privatisation of the Chilean education system which began with the LOCE law enacted under the dictatorship, experts like García-Huidobro say.

The LOCE law transferred the administration of public schools from the Education Ministry to the country’s 345 municipalities, and also permitted the creation of state-subsidised private schools.

Far from breaking with this model, the successive administrations of the Coalition of Parties for Democracy that have governed Chile for 19 years have entrenched it by, for example, authorising state-subsidised private schools to charge families a monthly fee for their children’s education. This is known as “shared financing.”

The new law made “small advances, but the core problems of Chilean education, that is to say, its deep inequality and increasing social segregation, remain untouched and unsolved,” said García-Huidobro. The law does not ensure improvement of public education, nor does it end shared financing, he said.

Among its positive aspects, according to the expert, the law “provides a better definition of the right to education,” and stipulates stricter conditions for the owners of state-subsidised private schools.

It also creates an agency to oversee the quality of education and a superintendency of education that will act as a watchdog for the correct use of public funds.

In addition, it proposes a gradual change in the length of primary and secondary school cycles. At present there are eight years of basic education and four years of secondary education, which will be modified to six years of primary and six years of secondary schooling.

The law “does not overcome any of the factors that have been diagnosed as causing the education crisis in this country,” said Rodrigo Cornejo, a researcher at the Chilean Observatory of Educational Policy at the University of Chile, concurring with García-Huidobro.

In an interview with IPS, Cornejo said “Chilean education remains a captive in the hands of private ownership,” since the law “did not change the system by which it is financed, nor the model of administration by municipalities and state-subsidised private enterprise.”

The stricter conditions laid on private school owners “are not a step forward, either, because they are aimed at making the market work better, and our position is that the market simply has no place in education,” Cornejo said.

Both experts also consider that the complementary bills drafted by the government, one of which strengthens public education, “are worse” than the new law itself.

“One of the biggest errors into which the educational debate has fallen, in general, is to think that education can be improved without changing society,” said Cornejo, whose perspective on the problem links it with the country’s “anti-democratic constitution” and “extremely unequal income distribution.”

“This is not just about the approval of a law, nor just about an educational problem. This is a problem about the way Chilean society is dealing with change. We believe that it is not possible, in a country that calls itself democratic, for only the government and parliament to be entitled to introduce draft laws,” said the president of the University of Chile Students’ Federation (FECH), Federico Huneeus.

“We are going to work to mobilise civil society to prepare a draft law for a model of education for the people, that President Bachelet can take and present to parliament, and that will be a proposal that has truly arisen from all of the actors involved in the educational system,” he concluded.

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