Professors Alfredo Gaete of Pontificia Universidad Católica Villarrica and Stephanie Jones of the University of Georgia have studied what has been called the Great Chilean Miracle. No its not about men trapped in a mine. It is about a public school system that was completely privatized to allow market forces to produce the best education possible. Unfortunately, the miracle that privatizers hoped for did not happen. Gaete and Jones warn that the Chilean experiment of corporatization was not successful in improving education there. The result was a wider performance gap between the classes and a national student revolt. The Show Me State should look to the experience of those ahead of us on this trail to choice and charters and learn from their mistakes.

This article is reprinted with permission from Stephanie Jones.


IMAGINE a country that was once committed to quality public education, but began to treat that public good like a market economy with the introduction of charter schools and voucher systems.

Imagine that after a few years, most students in this country attended private schools and there was public funding for most of such schools, which must compete for that funding by improving their results. Imagine the state fostered this competition by publishing school rankings, so parents were informed of the results obtained by each institution.

Imagine, finally, that school owners were allowed to charge extra fees to parents, thereby rendering education a quite profitable business.

But let’s stop imagining, because this country already exists.

After a series of policies implemented from the 1980’s onward, Chilean governments have managed to develop one of the most deregulated, market-oriented educational schemes in the world.

Inspired by the ideas of such neoliberal economists as Hayek and Friedman, the “Chilean experiment” was meant to prove that education can achieve its highest quality when its administration is handed over mainly to the private sector and, therefore, to the forces of the market.

How did they do this?

Basically by creating charter schools with a voucher system and a number of mechanisms for ensuring both the competition among them and the profitability of their business. In this scenario, the state has a subsidiary but still important role, namely, to introduce national standards and assess schools by virtue of them (in such a way that national rankings can be produced).

This accountability job, along with the provision of funding, is almost everything that was left to the Chilean state regarding education, in the hope that competition, marketing, and the like would lead the country to develop the best possible educational system.

So what happened? Here are some facts after about three decades of the “Chilean experiment” that, chillingly, has also been called the “Chilean Miracle” like the more recent U.S. “New Orleans Miracle.”

  • First, there is no clear evidence that students have significantly improved their performance on standardized tests, the preferred measurement used to assess schools within this scenario of the free market.
  • Second, there is now consensus among researchers that both the educational and the socioeconomic gaps have been increased. Chile is now a far more unequal society than it was before the privatization of education – and there is a clear correlation between family income and student achievement according to standardized testing and similar measures.
  • Third, studies have shown that schools serving the more underprivileged students have greater difficulties not only for responding competitively but also for innovating and improving school attractiveness in a way to acquire students and therefore funding.
  • Fourth, many schools are now investing more in marketing strategies than in actually improving their services.
  • Fifth, the accountability culture required by the market has yielded a teach-to-the-test schema that is progressively neglecting the variety and richness of more integral educational practices.
  • Sixth, some researchers believe that all this has negatively affected teachers’ professional autonomy, which in turn has triggered feelings of demoralization, anxiety, and in the end poor teaching practices inside schools and an unattractive profession from the outside.
  • Seventh, a general sense of frustration and dissatisfaction has arisen not only among school communities but actually in the great majority of the population. Indeed, the ‘Penguins Revolution’ – a secondary students’ revolt driven by complaints about the quality and equity of Chilean education – led to the most massive social protest movement in the country during the last 20 years. So even though there still are advocates of the private model of education, especially among those who have profited from it, an immense majority of the Chilean society is now urging the government for radical, deep reforms in the educational system of the country.

Very recently, in fact, an announcement was made that public university would be free for students, paid for by a 24 percent tax on corporations.

The ‘Chilean Miracle’ – like the ‘New Orleans Miracle’ – it seems, is not a miracle of student growth, achievement, equity, and high quality education for all. Rather, it is a miracle that a once protected public good was finally exploited as a competitive private market where profit-seeking corporations could receive a greater and greater share of public tax dollars.

It is also a miracle that such profit-seeking private companies and corporations, including publishing giants that produce educational materials and tests, have managed to keep the target of accountability on teachers and schools and not on their own backs.

Their treasure trove of funding – state and federal tax monies – continues to flow even as their materials, technological innovations, products, services, and tests fail to provide positive results.

So we don’t have to guess what the result will be of the current “U.S. experiment” with competition-infused education reform that includes school choice, charter schools, charter systems, voucher systems, state-funded education savings accounts for families, tax credits for “donations” to private schools, state takeover school districts, merit pay, value-added models for teacher evaluation, Common Core national standards, PARCC and Smarter Balanced national tests, edTPA national teacher education evaluations, and federal “rewards” such as Race to the Top for states that come aboard.

Indeed, Chilean education reform from the 1980s to the present provides the writing on the wall, so to speak, for the United States and we should take heed. Chile is now engaged in what will be a long struggle to dig its way out of the educational disaster created by failed experimentation and falsely produced miracles.

The United States still has time to reverse course, to turn away from the scary language of crisis and the seductive language of choice and accountability used in educational reform, and turn toward a fully funded and protected public education for our nation.


Gaete and Jones have been criticized for their conclusions. For instance, a 2012 report by Hanushek, Peterson and Woessman found that between 1995 to 2009, Chilean students gained more than two years in learning compared to less than one year among American students. However, by 2009  Chile, with one of the highest GDP per capita in Latin America, scores lower than some African countries in comparative education tests. When one is at the bottom of the barrel, one can have a meteoric rise only to the middle.

There has been a substantial increase in spending on education by the Chilean government, from $360 per child in the 1990s to approximately $3,000 per full-time student. Three types of schools were created by the neoliberal education policies – municipal, private and subsidized private. Most of the private schools are for-profit schools. Parents could, with some limitations, choose which one they wanted to send their children to. Such a system has actually created larger disparities in school funding between the rich and poor municipalities, since local governments with cash can invest in municipal schools and/or attract private sponsorship. Parents can also add to the tuition for the more prestigious schools.

Then there is the issue of competition. The private schools are free to reject pupils at will, which has created an intense competition for admission to the better schools. This has fed existing  parental obsessions to get their kids into “the best” schools.  As a result,Chile has the highest rates of adolescent stress and juvenile suicide in Latin America.

If your goal with education is to reduce the poverty rate, because you believe educating everyone raises all boats, then these types of reforms will not give you the results you are looking for. A report by Kirsten Sehnbruch of the Centre for New Development Thinking  showed that while absolute poverty has been reduced in Chile, relative poverty has remained fairly constant, even with the massive investment in the country (e.g. a Google data center worth $150 million) and the consistent social spending.

Extreme poverty, poverty and relative poverty based on 60% of the median level in Chile from 1990 to 2009. Social spending is plotted through the poverty indexes.

A 2004 OECD (the UN) report found that the Chilean education system is “consciously structured by social class.”  Guillermo Teillier, General Secretary of the Chilean Communist Party, “It has been clearly established that ‘educational freedom,’ as established by the LOCE, transforms education into a business and generates inequality from infancy.”

The rush to privatize education may just swap one set of problems for another so we should be very clear which problems we are trying to solve and what collateral damage we are willing to accept in pursuing those goals before we launch head long into the transformation of education into a publicly funded private workforce training program arranged around the goals of business, whether that be the ones looking for future employees or the ones providing the education.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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