September 2, 2014
The devil is always in the details
For the Herald
With her pledges on education, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet has bound herself to a promise that’s difficult to keep
NEW YORK — As she begins to deliver on her campaign pledge of free universal quality education, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet will soon find out that people often choose to ignore the small print that comes with candidates’ campaign promises.
Because Chileans expect a drastic overhaul of the educational system and many think that education will immediately be free for all, the more gradual nature of reforms that Bachelet has announced will erode the high support she now enjoys.
After the 2011 student protests, the demand for free education defined the 2013 presidential campaign. Though she initially spoke out against free universal education — claiming that it made no sense to subsidize those who could afford it — Bachelet quickly embraced the promise of free education at all levels. Since people fondly remembered her first term in office (2006-2010), she probably did not need to commit herself to that promise to win the election. Given the unpopularity of outgoing President Sebastián Piñera, Bachelet was a shoe-in for the presidency regardless of what pledges she made. Yet, as she pledged to make significant strides toward free education for all, Bachelet bound herself to a promise that’s difficult to fulfill.
Shortly after taking office, Bachelet sent legislation to Congress to increase taxes on corporations and on the highest income earners. The opposition has warned that the reform will hinder growth, but since Bachelet’s centre-left Nueva Mayoría coalition has a majority in Congress, the reform is likely to pass. Though she will need to make some concessions to make sure the tax reform is voted for favourably by Congress, Bachelet knows that she will get the money she wants to implement educational reform.
Here is where the problem begins. There are different views in the Bachelet administration and within the Nueva Mayoría as to what needs to be done to improve the quality of education, control the high costs of private education and reduce segregation in elementary and secondary schools.
The more radical wings wants to drastically reduce the role of private- for-profit education in schools. They claim that private schools that charge a co-pay on top of the government subsidy do not offer better education, but simply exclude low-income students. Staunchly opposed to “selection” — mechanisms that allow schools to choose their students — and to the co-pay system (that allows parents to send their children to the best schools they can afford), this group wants an educational system where all kids (except those in fully private schools) attend schools of the same quality.
A different group wants to strengthen public education. They put the focus on improving the quality of municipal schools, where the lowest income families send their children. For them, selection and co-pay are the results — not the cause — of a segregated system. The cause is the insufficient funding for public schools. This group supports the practice of selection by merit used by some elite public schools. For this group, as long as the public system offers quality education, parents should be free to opt out into the private system. The problem of selection will disappear when public schools offer better education than privately-owned voucher schools. Another group focuses on improving the quality of education, regardless of who owns the schools.
Although Bachelet’s programme called for the end of selection, co-pay and for-profit schools, many in her coalition have different views on how and when those changes should take effect. Since the devil is always in the detail, the way in which the transition to the new educational system is made will inevitably alienate some within the Nueva Mayoría.
The differences increase when the debates moves on to how to bring about free university education. Although Bachelet has warned that it will be a gradual process, some in her coalition firmly oppose giving free education to those from the highest income groups. Others believe that only public universities should be free of charge. Many disagree as to whether Catholic universities should continue to be treated as public institutions.
Yesterday, Bachelet sent her first key piece of legislation to Congress to begin overhauling the educational system. As the proposal calls for gradual change, many student leaders denounced it as cosmetic change. Because the proposal will require for-profit schools to transform into non-profit foundations, others fear that many private schools will close and thousands of children will be forced into the dysfunctional public sector.
In the months to come, Bachelet will need to carefully balance her promise of radical reform with the strategy of gradual and pragmatic policy change that worked so well for her in her first administration. Though she probably does not want to alienate student leaders — and does not want street protests — Bachelet also knows that Chileans distrust radical change (as she herself experienced when she launched the new transportation system in Santiago in 2007).
In the end, Bachelet’s reforms will not be evaluated on whether student leaders or her coalition partners are pleased, but on whether she can move forward in creating a system with free and universal quality education for all.