Catholic church enters education fray
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HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of Chile's elementary, high school and university students are now two months behind in their classes due to an escalating protest movement demanding free public education and better instructional quality.
The student movement takes action up to twice each week and has mobilized thousands of sympathizers, including parents, teachers, and even grandparents who see this moment as a chance for Chile to move beyond its underdeveloped educational curriculum.
Chile's educational system, and its funding, is diverse. Primary and secondary instruction has a public option financed entirely by the state, a mixed option whose funding is shared by parents and the state, and a private option, fully funded by students' families. The university system is, by law, entirely a non-profit program.
Still, critics allege that the "mixed" educational system is, in effect, a state subsidy of private business. Critics also charge that private universities have skirted the non-profit higher-education law by creating property holding companies that then lease their buildings for the purpose of higher education, returning tidy profits to the company owners. This shadow for-profit system has become the axis of the battle for those who want business interests completely out of education.
Chile's poor learning outcomes in standardized evaluations have only complicated the debate further. Internal measurements have shown that more than half of the university system's graduating professionals do not comprehend what they read.
Not one Chilean university is among the world's top 200, yet Chile's education system is among the most expensive of the nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD). And, unlike its neighbor countries, Chile does not have even one free public university.
The situation has become very strained, since neither the government nor the students have shown any willingness to soften their positions. Every protest march ends in violent clashes with authorities, which has generated additional protests against the president Sebastián Piñera for the repressive response.
Amid the rising tensions, the Catholic Church spoke out publicly, calling for reflection and dialog. "The country cannot move forward while resisting such pressure and repression, nor threats and provocations. At this moment of decision, it is critical to pursue dialog in order to objectively evaluate demands and proposals, restore confidence, find common ground, and achieve consensus. We must realize that every negotiation requires all parties to concede key points to the others," the Standing Committee of the Episcopate asserted in its statement.
The bishops also argued that the student protests and the affiliated marches are expressions of a growing, global social discontent rooted in "structural (economic) models based on greed and unlimited gains rather than on a commitment to a holistic development of the masses".