In her new book, ‘Democracy in Chains,’ historian Nancy Maclean locates the origin of today’s radical right movement back to 1950s politics in the U.S. She uncovers a largely covert effort by the wealthy and their academic allies to undermine the very basis of democratic governance in the US. She quotes Tyler Cohen, an economist from George Mason University, who once remarked that “the freest countries have not generally been democratic,” with Chile being “the most successful.”  Cohen, a Koch brother- backed anti-government thinker, was celebrating the Constitutional restrictions put in place by the military dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s that set in motion school privatization, regressive taxation polices, a fend-for-yourself retirement system, and retrograde social policies. Pinochet designed many of these policy accomplishments under the advisement of University of Chicago economists like Milton Freidman and his acolytes such as James Buchanan, Cohen’s predecessor at GMU.

Mindful of this history, a group from Chicago, including twelve representatives from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Teachers for Social Justice (TSJ) and the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, traveled to Chile on a delegation led by Alto el Simce, a collective of activists fighting a standardized test introduced in Chile in the late 80s, which has become a ubiquitous exam.  The delegation was designed to fortify the ties between educational justice activists in Chicago and Chile. There is a deep history between the two countries that extends to the dark days of the US-sponsored dictatorship in the 1970s, and we discovered that Chile is ground zero for school privatization experiments, historically led by American economists that have to this day unleashed what are arguably the most virulent and extreme form of market-based education policies on the planet.

The delegation allowed us to meet with a wide range of leaders in civil society from the Chilean teachers union, academics, parents fighting for community schools and third party political formations.  It was shortly after Pinochet’s 1973 coup that teacher unions and public schools were placed under a system of authoritarian control of curriculum and privatization. We learned from many activists, torture survivors, and labor leaders that the education system under the former socialist president  Salvador Allende, had been thriving through the use of constructivist pedagogy and people-centered curriculum Allende was assassinated by Pinochet’s military forces with support from the United States government. Public education advocates became targets of repression and the pre-coup teachers union was dismantled, replaced with a “professional” teacher organization. One teacher union leader who had worked at the “Normalista” schools (pre-service teacher preparation programs) prior to the dictatorship told us that one reason Pinochet wanted to destroy the public system was that he “didn’t like teacher closeness with families and students.” To this day teacher preparation programs are weak and the teachers union stymied by a constitutional straight jacket designed to contain the power of workers and their organizations.
Many of the worst features of the Chilean educational system were hatched by the University of Chicago Boys (Milton Friedman, James Buchanan) who used their direct access to the dictatorship to enact the most radical and untested ideas of a free market policy regime. They were largely unable to do so in the U.S., even when they aligned with the most backward forces in society defending racial segregation of schools in the 1950s, because public education was, and still is, perceived by most in the U.S. as a necessary right to be preserved not destroyed. In Chile, the military dictatorship destroyed the democratic checks and balances to stop these libertarian mad-scientists from hatching their wildest dreams. As a result, the percentage of public schools went from 79% public in the year 1977 to only 37% public today. “Subvencionadas,” which are like charter schools or academies in the U.K., are now the biggest overall section of schools, having a 48% share of the entire educational system. Additionally, Chile has one of the most pernicious “merit pay” systems that regularly forces educators to “teach to the test” and compete with their peers in order to receive essential pay bonuses and earn a wage that keeps them above the poverty line. Nevertheless, we met some teachers who allied with their students boycotting the “Simce” (national standardized test) and gladly rejected the pay bonuses to demonstrate solidarity with their school communities.

The assault on public education has not been without significant resistance in Chile. As in the largest U.S. cities, Chilean teachers have begun to unionize at a number of the “subvencionadas.” Initially, the move to privatize was designed to decrease government spending on schooling. From 1982 to 1990 funding for public education in Chile dropped from 4.9% of GDP to 2.5%. However, there is a trend of increased spending as of late. Much of the funding is being captured by private operators, which disguises the use of public money as spending on children rather than profit-seeking of charter and private school operators. A similar dynamic exists in the U.S. where hedge funds and investors seek to capture educational resources from the public system through privatization, student data vendors, and sale of computer/digital products and apps to schools.  We met countless activists who had been inspired to fight for public schools from the 2006 Penguin Revolution, when Chilean high school students rebelled against an unequal school system in a nation-wide student strike. In Valparaiso, a mid-sized historically vibrant city outside of Santiago, we met with a young Socialist Mayor who forged his political identity during the 2011 mobilizations by university, high school students and their allies in demand of a free and public educational system from primary grades through college.

Many teachers, public servants and left political activists were interested in the Chicago experience, not least because of the pernicious role of the University of Chicago in Chile. There were also many admirers of the 2012 CTU strike. In the 2014-15 school year, the Colegio de Professores  (the largest Chilean Teachers Union) engaged in a 50-day strike that many regarded as difficult and unclear in its outcomes but was undeniably militant and courageous. We found a great willingness to engage in strikes with mass participation, but a hesitance to organize in conjunction with parents and community. In Santiago’s city center we demonstrated with teachers who had marched for 3 days from their township to demand their salaries which were months in arrears. 

Despite the considerable signs of resistance, like a fisherman strike in Valparaiso that shut down the port city, the ghost of the dictatorship seemed to linger in many of the spaces we encountered. At a school meeting in a suburban district besieged by budget cuts and toilet paper shortages, similar to conditions in the Chicago Public Schools, teachers were reluctant to march on City Hall and despondent when considering the constitutional barriers at the national level inhibiting full investment in public schools.  One of our Alto El Simce guides reminded the group “Without community action we cannot confront the forces of neoliberalism.”

There were plenty of other indignities that confront educators, students and families in the Chilean school system.  Teachers have 70% of their daily schedule in front of their students with very little preparation time, which usually amounts to 8 hours of direct teaching and co-teaching every day. Class sizes are worse in the charter system with over 50 students per classroom. Special Education teachers are overwhelmed, underappreciated, not provided the legal protections  their counterparts receive in the U.S., and paid less than traditional classroom teachers.
One of the real bright spots was meeting with the Movimiento por La Unidad Docente (MUD), the Unified Movement of Teachers, a radical caucus within the Colegio de Professores that recently claimed one of three officer positions in the national union during a recent election.  The MUD is working for a “national front of educational workers.” The Colegio, in contrast, is almost exclusively focused on the needs and demands of teachers and does not attempt to organize paraprofessional staff, clinicians, charter teachers or parent workers in the schools. Part of the restrictions upon the Colegio are constitutional in nature and the MUD is able to go beyond the restrictions by forming a different kind of organization altogether. By organizing wall-to-wall school unions, the MUD hopes to break through the distinctions and divisions put in place post-dictatorship that divide teachers from paraprofessionals and clinicians, and separate workers in private versus public work places. There was a noticeable difference between some of the organizing tactics described by MUD activists and workers organizing in the charter system,  a greater willingness to engage parents and students to fight for improved classroom conditions.

Both the Colegio and the MUD spend a considerable amount of time training educators in the practices of critical and liberation pedagogy, a markedly different culture  from what is found in most U.S. teacher unions. Luis Eduardo Gonzalez, head of the MUD and officer of the Colegio stated that by engaging in these various strategies of the same project “teachers are capable of transforming the country.”

It was with this popular energy that the Frente Amplio, a new political formation, wielded recently to score unprecedented electoral victories. The Frente Amplio is a coalition of left forces dissatisfied with the dominant political parties and made considerable gains in the presidential and parliamentary elections in Chile this year. However, the conservative candidate, Pinera, won the presidency in a run-off that could portend another turn to the right for a country with social movements fighting ferociously to get out from under the constitutional prohibitions formed by Pinochet nearly a half-century ago. For example, a mass movement had to form in order to change the constitution so that women who faced mortal danger could obtain a legalized abortion, a difficult accomplishment that required a gargantuan amount of energy and commitment to realize.

Ultimately, the Chileans taught us a series of deeply important lessons about resiliency, memory, and the need to possess a long view about the dialectics of social transformation. It will take people from different sectors with an assortment of ideologies and backgrounds to make the big changes we need possible and slay the beast of neoliberal devastation wrought in both countries