By Nathan Frandino
Inside the walls of Liceo de Aplicación, one of Santiago’s most esteemed all-boys high schools, the students stand guard. Chairs are piled ten feet high, legs sticking out in all directions. Desks hang from atop a 15-foot-tall black iron fence. Multi-colored posters denouncing Chile’s education system line the halls. Groups of uniformed teenagers in grey pants and black shoes patrol the front doors, preventing access by any non-students. Not even newly appointed Education Minister Felipe Bulnes or President Sebastián Piñera would be allowed to enter this school.
“We took over the school and we are in a peaceful toma,” said Freddy Fuentes, a junior at Liceo de Aplicación and the spokesperson for the student group Coordinadora Nacional de Estudiantes Secundarios (CONES). “We know that we can achieve a change, and we’re going to insist that the politicians listen to us.”
Liceo de Aplicación is “en toma”—taken over by its students, and has been since June 7.
For more than two months, thousands of Chilean students have taken to the streets with tomas, strikes, marches, collective staged suicides, and even kissing marathons to demand sweeping education reform. Demonstrations are popping up at a scale unseen since the end of authoritarian rule in 1990.
The students are demanding equal access to quality education; greater state support in terms of resources; and an end to the country’s municipalización system, which stipulates that Ministry of Education funding be distributed to municipalities before going to any municipal schools. Students say the only way to satisfy their demands is to alter Chile’s 1980 Constitution.
All across this Andean nation, high school students have been organizing for change; organizers estimate that a few early protests drew as many as 15,000 people. Late last month, a march in Santiago attracted an estimated 200,000.
To pay for the tomas, students have taken to the streets to ask for donations at public transportation and school entrances. Oscar Lavos, a 16-year-old junior at Liceo de Aplicación, collects donations to support the ongoing toma. The money goes to food, blankets, and other bed supplies and materials to create posters and distribute to the public.
When Chile’s dictator General Augusto Pinochet began statewide decentralization and opened Chile’s market to privatization in the 1980s, schools were not exempted. Pinochet allowed profit-driven private schools to be opened with state funds. He also created the now-controversial municipalización system, which disburses funds based on the number of students that attend a school and their attendance records. As a result, schools in rural or low-income areas—where many students abandon education or cannot attend regularly in order to work—have historically struggled to compete for funding with schools in urban areas such as Liceo de Aplicación, which is considered among the best public schools in the country.
“The poor administration of the municipality, the poor management of money, the poor management in general of the high schools makes it so education cannot be carried out as it should,” said Fuentes, the student leader. Due to this mismanagement, CONES is asking that the funding system return to the way it was before Pinochet, allowing funds to come directly from the Ministry of Education.
In the current system, the municipalities use the money to pay staff, operating, and administration costs, but with the Ministry allocating funds directly to the schools, principals would have more control of resources—resources that could pay for new technology in classrooms and help develop better curriculum programming, among other things.
Students—from within both secondary and higher education—have taken creative approaches to keeping the movement fresh. Groups have staged “mass suicides” on three separate occasions in cities across the country to symbolize the death of public education. They’ve made parody music videos and performances of songs like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Summer Nights” from the movie Grease.
The tomas have gone on the longest: at Liceo de Aplicación, students have held the school for over seven weeks. During the day, they hold assemblies to vote on whether to continue the protest; discuss the movement’s progress; and plan meals, security, and sleeping arrangements.
Meanwhile, parents and professors have also joined student protesters. Parents fill in for the lunch staff, cooking meals for the students while professors serve as advisers. Some also offer tutoring while official classes are suspended.
Maritza Valdés, a philosophy teacher, said that students communicate with professors and students at other schools to coordinate the movement. She called the discussions a “proactive approach that everyone can learn from.”
“We professors have been in this toma since it began,” Valdés said. “We were in class when we all began reflecting about the problems in education. When the students discovered the big problem was the Constitution, we knew we had to support them.”
Despite this support, the government has not sat down with CONES to discuss reforms. Former Education Minister Joaquín Lavín and President Piñera have only met with the Council of Rectors (a group of 25 public university presidents) and the student leaders of the university-student federations. Those negotiations led Piñera to create a $4 billion education fund—an important achievement—but only for universities.
Furthermore, Matías Reeves, social director of Santiago-based advocacy group Educación 2020, said the high school students’ demand for constitutional reform is almost impossible to be met.
“We have a democratic system with a Parliament and Congress where they make the laws and regulate the country,” said Reeves. “But today it’s a Parliament that is completely separated, divided into two groups and some minorities, so constitutional reform is quite difficult.”
According to Reeves, the only way protests will stop is if the government listens to the students and directly reforms the education system without changing the constitution.
“The government should be able to negotiate,” Reeves said. “What they should do is propose a systemic education plan—a more global plan for the long term. As long as that doesn’t happen, the demonstrations are going to continue.”
Nathan Frandino, a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York, is currently a multimedia reporter for The Santiago Times.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user francisco_osorio]