by Miguel Ordenes
The Chilean education system, the paradigm of market-based reform, is experiencing one of its biggest twists since its foundation in 1981. Chile is moving away from a totally free market in education toward a mixed system with a powerful new role for the state. Chile has been a pioneer in the implementation of a post-welfarist development strategy and is frequently held up as a model by neoliberal thinkers. In education, Chile’s market-based reform has been among the purest, most extensive, and longest-lived in the world.
Inspired by the ideas of Milton Friedman, the dictator Augusto Pinochet introduced a school choice system in 1981 with the aim of increasing quality and efficiency. Several steps were taken to achieve these goals. First, education was decentralized, with authority for public education moving from the state to the municipalities, Chile’s smallest political unit. Vouchers became the source of school funding, which allowed semi-private schools to enter to the market. The labor market for teachers was also liberalized, and a national evaluation system was created to inform parents and students about the relative quality of schools.
After almost 30 years, the evidence has shown that school choice expanded the educational options available to families and increased the coverage of educational services. However, it is harder to measure whether academic achievement has improved since the implementation of school choice. What does seem clear is that school choice has led to socioeconomic segregation and unequal distribution in students’ achievement. In fact, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 has shown that Chile has one of the most socioeconomically segregated educational systems among the countries that participated in the OECD evaluation.
The Chilean educational market did not work. The interaction among decentralized producers and demanders following their preferences in a liberalized market did not distribute educational opportunities fairly. On the contrary, the richest kids receive the best educational opportunities, while the poorest children receive a remedial education that reproduces their conditions of poverty. One of the most important lessons from the Chilean experience is that the free market is blind in the distribution of social justice. In other words, when it comes to education, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” slaps the poorest people instead of offering them better opportunities.
In the last four years, the state has taken a more active role in coordinating the educational system. This twist has incorporated a state committed to the improvement of several inputs and outputs of the system and with the power to control the educational market. The novel role of the state is illustrated by recent measures to improve the training of teachers, channel additional resources to the most challenging schools, and create a sophisticated high-stakes accountability system to hold schools accountable for their academic achievement.
The state is coming back to Chilean education. While it is too soon to predict a better future for the Chilean educational system, this development should bring some hope to the most disadvantaged students for one simple reason: the only social actor that can press for equality in education is the state. The state has the potential to combine the productive and moral purpose of education; the market does not.
Miguel Ordenes is a Ph.D. student in Policy and Organizations Research in the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley.