Education Reform in Chile: Context, Content and Implementation

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Programa de Promoción de la Reforma Educativa en America Latina y el Caribe
Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas

No. 8

Education Reform in Chile:
Context, Content and

Cristián Cox*

August 1997

(*) Cristián Cox works in the Chilean Ministry of Education as national coordinator of the Program to Improve the Quality and Equity of Education (Programa de Mejoramiento de la Calidad y Equidad de la Educación, MECE).

Translated from Spanish by Lyn Bicheno



From the beginning of Chile’s transition to democracy in 1990 until the present, the government has taken unprecedented steps to transform and improve the education system. Backed by a broad consensus regarding the education sector’s strategic importance for economic and democratic development, policy changes have aimed at the goal of providing high-quality education to all. Universal high-quality education is expected to improve abstract thinking, communication skills, teamwork, learning ability, and moral judgment and hence enable graduates to perform well in the complex world in which they will have to function. These policy changes have come about within a decentralized institutional framework in which market principles—introduced in the early 1980s in accordance with the neoliberal economic policies of the former military regime—operate in concert with state policies designed to improve quality, equity, and the curriculum.

Chile’s educational advances of the 1990s provide an exceptional opportunity to study the roles that state and market might play in shaping a society’s system for developing its human resources and promoting cultural integration. To this end, it is important to examine the context and content of the education policies advocated by the Chilean government, the processes by which the changes have been implemented, and the main problems surrounding education policy reform.


Policy Context

External Context: Urgency, Opportunity, Consensus

Two principal factors account for Chile’s deep concern about the country’s educational institutions and practices. The first is a shift in national objectives. With the end of the authoritarian period, internal strife subsided and attention turned to constructing a consensus-based program for national development. Education occupied a central place in this program. Two decades of social chaos had left education in the shadows, with no thought to its social or cultural functions. As the 1990s dawned and ushered in major technological and sociocultural changes, education experts and society as a whole grew increasingly concerned about which cultural values to preserve and how to shape the intelligence and will of the new generation. The second factor relates to the acceleration of global changes marking the end of the century, in which information, knowledge, and communications play a pivotal role. These circumstances pushed education to the top of the social and political agendas.

The widespread sense of urgency regarding education reform has been fueled by three other factors as well. First, action in this sector has been one of the highest priorities of the last two administrations: the transition government of 1990-941 and President Eduardo Frei’s government of 1994-2000. Second, the macroeconomic stability and growth achieved in recent years have ensured the availability of a certain amount of financial support to sustain needed investments and reforms in education. And third, the proposed policies have met with widespread public acceptance. Whereas the privatization and decentralization implemented by the military government in the 1980s were strongly resisted by both teachers and the political opposition of the time, the educational changes of the 1990s—directed at the means and processes of teaching and learning—are not controversial. Indeed, there is universal support for the "modernization" of the sector.

Internal Context: Good Coverage, Poor Methods and Outcomes

When the transition government took over at the beginning of the decade, Chile’s subsidized school system was offering almost universal coverage at the primary level (lasting eight years), and close to 80 percent at the secondary level (lasting four years). This meant that education policy could address issues other than access. One of the principal problems at the time was a steady decline in public expenditure on education in conjunction with increased enrollment at the secondary level. Primary and secondary schools both were operating in extremely precarious material conditions. So it is not surprising that the average quality of learning in the state-funded school system was unacceptably low. According to the results of a survey known as SIMCE (the Sistema de Medición de la Calidad de la Educación, Educational Quality Measuring System), only 45-50 percent of students met minimum objectives during the 1980s, with no improvement over the course of the decade. Teachers, too, suffered serious problems. Their salaries had dropped by about one-third in real terms, and many of them had been subjected to political persecution for opposing the education management and financing model instituted in the 1980s. They saw the return to democracy as an opportunity to improve their financial and professional status, as well as to recentralize the system.

Decentralization and Financing through Per-student Subsidies: A Legacy of the 1980s

For most of its history, Chile’s school system has followed a highly centralized model of state-provided education that dates back to the mid–19th century. The only time it veered from this course was during the 1980s, when the military regime introduced radical reforms aimed at decentralizing and privatizing the system. These changes remained in place even when the democratic government came to power in 1990, although the state did adopt some new guidelines for action in the sector.

The reforms of the early 1980s consisted of three main measures directed at school management and financing. As a first step, the government transferred the administration of all schools from the Ministry of Education to the nation’s 325 municipalities (there are now 334); the municipalities were thus empowered to make their own decisions regarding staff and infrastructure, while the Ministry of Education retained powers of oversight, assessment, textbook selection, and the establishment of standards and curricula. Second, the old system of allocating resources—based on the historic expenditures of each school—was replaced by the payment of a subsidy for each child enrolled at a given school. This subsidy was intended to operate as a financial incentive to private entrepreneurs who might be willing to set up new establishments for primary and secondary education. Third, the reform transferred the management of a number of public institutions offering secondary-level vocational education from the Ministry of Education to corporations established for this purpose by the major business associations.

The decentralization and privatization of the 1980s were intended to achieve greater efficiency in the use of resources through competition among schools for enrollment, the transfer of functions from the Ministry of Education and its central bureaucracy to local municipalities, and the diminished negotiating power of the teachers unions. In addition, the private sector was encouraged to participate more in the supply of education, so as to increase the competition between schools and provide more options for consumers, and an effort was made to bring technical-professional secondary education into closer contact with the economic spheres of production and services.

By 1990 the school system was organized and managed in a dual fashion: public primary and secondary schools were administered by municipalities, but they looked to the Ministry of Education for guidelines on their curriculum, teaching methods, and evaluation. Similarly, private schools —whether or not they received a government subsidy—were subject to Ministry-established curricula and evaluations. This arrangement, the result of reforms imposed by the military regime on an historically centralized system, was basically accepted by subsequent Concertación (coalition) governments, although the latter have attempted to strengthen the role of the Ministry and have undertaken programs of direct intervention to enhance quality and equity.

Box 1

Structure, Size, and Management Categories of Chile’s School System

Chile’s school system consists of a mandatory eight-year primary program for children six to 13 years of age and an optional four-year secondary program for those 14 to 17. Students in the secondary program have a choice of following a more general academic (humanistic-scientific) curriculum, which prepares them to continue their studies at a tertiary level, or a vocational (technical-professional) curriculum offering training in skills that will enable them to enter the job market. The pre-school segment of the education program caters to children up to five years of age in an array of public and private institutions; enrollment in this segment is not obligatory and concentrates on four- and five-year-olds. In 1995 coverage of this group reached 24 percent. Total enrollment in primary and secondary schools in 1996 was 2.89 million students. Some 2.18 million attended primary school, where coverage approached 95 percent for children six to 13 years of age, while 709,207 students attended secondary school, where coverage was 80 percent for those 14 to 17. The system is served by 129,000 teachers in approximately 10,000 primary and 1,600 secondary education establishments.

As of 1996, the share in enrollment for the different categories created by the 1981 reform was as follows:


Municipal education

Private subsidized education
Non-subsidized private education
Corporation-run education*




* Refers to technical schools run by business associations and corporations, with public support through agreements with the government rather than on the basis of per-student subsidies as in the rest of the system.

New Policy Paradigm of the 1990s

The rationale behind Chile’s present education policies has departed from both the traditional centralized system, whose primary concern was to increase coverage, and the privatized and decentralized system of the 1980s. As suggested above, the policies of the 1990s have combined decentralization and competition for funds, on the one hand, with positive discrimination and proactive efforts by the state, on the other. The new programs are designed to improve the quality and equity of education, introduce new methods of transmitting information and evaluating programs and institutions, and open primary and secondary schools to external "support networks," particularly universities and corporations.

This framework has its roots in concepts developed at independent academic centers that opposed the authoritarian government. These centers sought to supersede both the traditional "teacher-state" and the decentralized system imposed by the neoliberal reform, which lacked a central agency capable of guiding the system toward new levels of quality while safeguarding equity. Views on education policy were also shaped by the World Conference on Education for All held at Jomtien, Thailand, in March 1990, and by ideas set forth by UNESCO and the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in the early 1990s. Principles established between 1990 and 1992 (Box 2) have guided education policy making throughout the current decade (see section 3).3

Box 2

Guiding Principles of Chile’s Education Policies during the 1990s

Policies concerned with quality have called for the following changes:

1. Shift the focus from educational inputs to learning processes and outcomes.

2. Conceive of "equity" not as the provision of a homogeneous education across the nation, but rather as the provision of an education that is sensitive to differences and discriminates in favor of disadvantaged groups.

3. Regulate the system not through bureaucratic and administrative procedures but through incentives, information and assessment.

4. Encourage institutions that have been somewhat divorced from the requirements of society—devoted primarily to self-sustainment and controlled by their practitioners and bureaucracy—to become more responsive to the demands of society and to interact more closely both among themselves and with institutions from other fields and environments.

5. Replace policies that promoted change via comprehensive reforms and linear planning, with differentiated strategies and incremental change based on unleasing schools’ own ability to take initiative, rather than follow prescribed methodological or curricular "recipes."

6. Shift from the absence of strategic (state) policies—or the subordination of such policies to special interests within and outside government—to strategic policies that are nationally defined, consensus-based, differentiated, and flexible.

Content of the Policies

The overall objective of state intervention in the education sector since 1990 has been to address the major issues of low quality and inequity in the learning experience provided to students. (Coverage is no longer a major problem.) Government actions have concentrated on four policy areas: financing, regulation of the teaching profession, educational environment and processes, and the political consensus on the need for change in the sector and the kind of changes required. Important steps, designed to act incrementally over time, have been taken in each of these areas. This paper will focus on policies affecting the learning environment and teaching processes; questions of political economy in the education sector will be touched on only briefly.


Increase in spending

Between 1990 and 1996, the total expenditures of the Ministry of Education increased steadily, from US$1.158 billion to US$2.235 billion (see Table 1), after a decade-long decline. Subsidies—that is, public spending per student enrolled in the school system (which on average accounts for about two-thirds of the sector’s budget)—rose 68.9 percent, while the total budget for education increased 93 percent. In addition to subsidies, the total budget includes spending on higher education, investments in educational infrastructure, and programs to improve quality and equity. Hence, the policies of this decade revolve around per-student subsidies—which signify that resources are being transferred to owners/managers, whether municipal or private—while, at the same time, the central government is capable of undertaking proactive measures through special investment and improvement programs. The political opposition sees the latter feature as a symptom of recentralization and bureaucratic control; in this respect the policy debate is about whether "all expenditure should go to subsidies" or whether "expenditure should go to subsidies plus improvement programs."

Per-student expenditure in 1990 represented just 77 percent of 1982 spending. It was not until 1994 that spending exceeded the 1982 level. By 1996 expenditure was one-third greater than in 1982, not counting spending on quality and equity improvement programs, special assistance programs, or infrastructure. If those costs are included, per-student expenditure increases to practically double that of the early 1990s (see Table 1).

Along with the sustained increase in expenditure, the subsidy policy has sought to address the most serious imbalances between schools’ subsidy income and normal operating expenses in the various types of education schemes. This has involved substantially increasing subsidies to rural schools and adult education. In addition, since 1995 special subsidies have been awarded to schools in poor areas that have extended their school hours to provide remedial activities for lagging students.

Shared Financing, 1993.

Under a tax reform passed at the end of 1993, the families of children attending subsidized private (but not municipal) primary schools and subsidized municipal and private secondary schools are required to pay a fee, as a form of co-payment alongside the state subsidy. When per-family fees exceed a certain level, the subsidy is decreased proportionately.4 Shared financing allowed the schools in the system to collect US$35 million in 1994, US$55 million in 1995, and US$80 million in 1996 (which was equivalent to about 6.3 percent of total subsidies for that year). In 1996, 25 percent of enrolled students (about 744,000) were included in this co-payment scheme, with fees ranging from about US$2.50 to US$85 per month.

Although the co-payment arrangement has succeeded in attracting private resources into education, it has also segmented public education (by differentiating schools according to the level of resources that sustain them) and caused social segregation (by excluding families that are unable to pay). This practice violates principles of equity and needs to be remedied, though no appropriate mechanisms for doing so have yet been found.


Table 1: Ministry of Education Expenditures and Per Student Subsidy Rate 1982-96
(Ministry spending in millions of U.S. dollars averaged over 1996;
monthly subsidy rate per student in 1996 U.S. dollars)



Education as
a percentage of public

Education as a percentage of GDP

Subsidized enrollment

Monthly per student subsidy

Per student subsidy index (1982 = 100)






























































35.53 (*)


Regulation of the Teaching Profession

Teachers Statute 1 (Law 19,070), 1991.

In 1991 the government restructured teachers’ labor regulations and transferred them from the Labor Code governing private activities to a special Teachers Statute (Estatuto Docente) that sets forth national work standards (e.g., number of days, maximum number of hours, holiday benefits) and an improved nationwide salary structure. It also provides bonuses for further training, professional experience, and working in difficult conditions, as well as high job stability.

This statute has been the most controversial measure of the 1990s. It caused a split in the presidential cabinet and would not have gained executive approval without the personal support of the president himself. In congress, the articles referring to job tenure, especially the tenure of principals, were made even more stringent, with the strong support of the political opposition. At the same time, the opposition believes that the statute has reversed the measures introduced in the 1980s to deregulate the teachers’ labor market and runs entirely counter to the subsidy financing scheme. The statute made it practically impossible for owners/managers to make changes in their teaching staffs in line with enrollment (and, therefore, with income); in essence, it has hindered management from becoming more efficient by making one of its key factors inflexible. Yet it also provided a basic political condition that has helped ensure reform in other areas, in that it in large measure satisfied teachers’ expectations of a better deal with the return to democracy. Between 1990 and July 1996, there were only two days of teacher strikes, and no opposition whatsoever to the set of programs aimed at improving the quality of teaching and learning, which forms the heart of the education policy agenda in the 1990s.

Teachers Statute 2 (Law 19,410), 1995.

Under the new municipal administrations established through the democratic process from 1991 to 1993, the teaching staff grew by approximately 10 percent. However, enrollment—and, therefore, income—did not increase commensurately, and financial imbalances appeared within the municipalized system. In response, the statute was reformed to relax the rules on tenure and to link salaries to performance. One initiative created an Annual Plan for the Development of Municipal Education (Plan Anual de Desarrollo de la Educación Municipal, PADEM), which made it possible to reduce staffing levels as of 1997, and established a National Performance Assessment System (Sistema Nacional de Evaluación de Desempeño, SNED) for schools, which allows evaluations to take into account the type of students teachers work with, and establishes incentives and awards for teaching staffs that improve learning outcomes. Both PADEM and SNED are in the initial stages of implementation.

The 1995 reform of the teachers statute also provided for a further increase in teachers’ salaries. This and other raises during 1990-96 (not including one agreed on in September 1996 and applied in the first quarter of 1997), boosted teachers’ remunerations by 80 percent in real terms since 1990; average pay amounts to about US$640 per month for a 30-hour week.

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