In the past four weeks, the Chilean education system has been caught in the eye of a storm driven by hundreds of thousands of students and teachers who are demanding democratic education reforms.
The central demand is for equal, free and fair higher education, government control of secondary education, and an end to a "market based" educational model.
"We are thousands of university and secondary education students across the country, occupying the universities, high schools and streets in order to say that education is a social right to which all of us, men and women, boys and girls should have access free of charge," declared protesters, who criticized the fact that the Chilean government has left the crucial education sector in private hands, creating immense social differences in Chile.
The Sebastián Piñera administration was not the first to turn education into a profit-making institution, but it has taken this process to an openly commercial extreme.
Many of the country's current problems date from the neoliberal reforms that were applied under the Pinochet dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, which cut public education funding and pushed the creation of private educational institutions. As a result, the Chilean education system today shows a high degree of social segregation.
After the end of the military dictatorship, efforts were concentrated on extending the coverage of the nation's school system. Today, Chile budgets about 4 percent of its gross national product for public education, a figure UNESCO recommends should be at least 7 percent.
Chile has 3.5 million primary and secondary students and around a million students in higher education.
In Chile, primary and secondary education is offered free of charge by municipalities and on a pay-as-you-go basis by educational corporations that may also receive government subsidies depending on what they charge families for tuition and fees.
However, at the level of higher education, the problem is that all the universities must find their funding on the open market, even public institutions. For this reason, the financial burden falls primarily on families, who have to go heavily into debt to pay tuition and fees, with student loans that finally end up as costly as a mortgage.
It was in this context that students returned to the streets on July 14 to demand "free and quality education," and a free and public university system, and to reject the intervention of private businesses in the education sector.
"We want to move ahead to an education system that opens up possibilities for breaking with this unequal and socially-segregated model for Chile," declared student leaders.
The crisis of the educational system, which has been brought out very powerfully in the students' demands and mobilizations, is only one expression of a much broader and deeper problem: the extreme degree of social inequality that currently exists in Chile.
This is a society that has watched itself disintegrate thanks to economic policies that were imposed from above, and by a resulting extreme ideology of individualism that has minimized and eroded any sense of social responsibility.
This is the social context that explains the current crisis in the educational system, which only works to reproduce existing inequalities.
What is needed is access to the resources that would be required to substantially improve quality of public education at all levels, resources that under the present social system can only be obtained by imposing a significant tax-hike on highest-income individuals, that is to say, the establishment of a progressive tax system.
Perhaps most notable is that the students in their demands, beyond that of simply improving the education system, have been able to focus on transformations that aim at the very heart of the system.
Thus, for example, "re-nationalization of the copper" is a central theme of the national economy. The Chilean copper-mining industry was turned over to the transnational corporations under Pinochet.
In 2010, the country's great copper mines earned some $14.3 billion dollars in profits. This is the figure that the students have brought to the table, because of its obvious relationship to the financing of education.
The budget of the Education Ministry for 2011 was fixed at $10.777 billion dollars, which means that the profits made by the great mining corporations are about 25 percent more than Chile's entire education budget.
The fight for a basic transformation of the educational system thus shows itself as one part of a larger struggle for social justice and for the democratization of the country.
Alberto Ampuero is a journalist based in Riverside, California. Photo: Classroom chairs piled up during a demonstration in defense of public education. Francisco Javier Argel // CC 2.0