Chilean Teachers on Strike over Bachelet’s Education Reform


EspañolNearly 50,000 Chilean public school teachers have been on strike for over 10 days, demanding a series of employment benefits be included in President Michelle Bachelet’s education reform.

Jaime Gajarado, president of the teachers union, College of Teachers of Chile (CPC), had reached a prior agreement with the ruling party. However, union members rejected the terms, complaining they had not been consulted. The internal dispute led Gajarado to meet on Thursday with the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) to deliver a new set of demands.

After the meeting, the CPC leadership announced having come to an agreement with the Ministry of Education on two of the five points on their short agenda. The union will hold meetings on Monday to decide whether or not to ratify these agreements and lift their strike.

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A group of teachers called “the dissidents” has demanded President Bachelet resign over alleged errors committed by her administration during their initial negotiation.

On Thursday, protesters stood outside the Ministry of Education building and chanted slogans reminding the government and their union leadership that “teachers are not for sale.”

Jorge Gómez Arismendi, a researcher for Chile’s Foundation for Progress, believes it is likely that the Bachelet administration will honor the union’s requests. “The criticism and pressure from teachers directed at Gajardo translates to criticism and pressure directed at the government of the New Majority (NM). It is not in their best interest to have teachers protesting their administration, so it is likely they will reach an agreement,” he told the PanAm Post.

Divided Agenda

Teachers throughout Chile have expressed discontent with the education system.
Teachers throughout Chile have expressed discontent with the education system. (@negritasalto)

There are five points on the CPC’s short agenda, and the union and the Ministry and Education have only reached agreements on two.

The first point of agreement is a path for auxiliary teachers to become fully tenured. The government has proposed providing tenure to those teachers with at least 20 hours a week in a classroom for the past three consecutive years, or four discontinuous years, as of July 31, 2014.

The second point involves a proposed bonus incentive for voluntary retirement, which approximately 13 percent of teachers in Chile could benefit from.

The government and the CPC have not yet reached agreements on raising the minimum salary for teachers, or the “teacher labor burden,” what the union calls a collection of requests regarding professional autonomy, vacation time, and other benefits.

The final point on the union’s agenda involves what is called the “historic debt.” In 1980, the central government transferred authority over the nation’s schools to each of the municipalities. Consequently, a special salary readjustment made prior to the transfer was not recognized, negatively affecting teacher retirement pensions. Teachers are now demanding the government pay this debt, but the Bachelet administration has proposed a technical committee review the issue.

Tensions over Education Reform

Bachelet’s proposed education reform, including the elimination of student selectivity and subsidies for for-profit schools, has caused tension between the two parties that form the ruling New Majority alliance: the Christian Democrats (DC) and the Communist Party (PC).

On Monday, November 17, the Bachelet administration attempted to move up the vote in Congress on its proposals to November 27, which caused disagreement within the Christian Democratic Party. As a result of the backlash, the administration announced on Thursday that the vote would remain scheduled for January 31, 2015.

Andrés Allamand, opposition senator for the National Renovation party, believes that each time the proposal is reviewed a new divide is created within the New Majority. “If the government’s approach to solving this problem is putting the pedal to the metal, that is a very bad way of going about it,” the senator said.

Gómez Arismendi thinks education reform is misguided. According to the academic, the government has forgotten that this form of subsidized education — which has been at the center of criticism — is a result of deficiencies in the public system.

“Parents are always going to choose a way to improve the education of their children, regardless of the nature of the institutions and resources behind it. This has been done in many different forms over the years. If public education was of a higher quality, parents would choose it.”

“The focus of education reform should center on public education — municipal schools and primary education — where cognitive deficits are created, which impact educational development down the road,” Arismendi said.

Near the end of October, parents held protests against reform measures, saying they restrict their ability to choose the course of their children’s education.

Religion Enters the Fight

On November 18, the Episcopal Conference of Chile published a document, titled, “Education Reform for the Good of Chile,” which presented the Catholic Church’s stance on this issue.

“Our motivation is the good of Chile,” say bishops on education reform.

According to the document’s press release, “fathers, mothers, and loved ones are the primary educators of their children, and are assuming their role in the education process, defending their rights, and their freedom to choose the education they want for their children.”

According to the Atheist Society of Chile, at least 700 subsidized schools that will be transformed to either public or private under the reform are Catholic.

On November 19, the Atheist Society proposed the repeal of the decree that regulates religious instruction in public schools, eliminating religion classes, and replacing them with history of religions courses. “The Church receives US$61 million a month for the 700 [subsidized] Catholic schools. These educational institutions must respect the secular state,” Ramón Badillo, secretary general of the Atheist Society, told the PanAm Post.

“This way, children will not only learn about the religions of their schools, but of all the diversity and pluralism that exists in Chile and around the world,” the Atheist Society said in a press release.

The organization is also attempting to overturn, independent of the education reform, Supreme Decree 924, which stipulates that “religion classes must be offered in all education institutions in the country.”

Translated by Guillermo Jimenez and Alex Clark-Youngblood.

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