"A country's development is expressed by the quality of its schools, not by the quality of its highways." The hand-painted sign hung outside a Santiago high school last week, one of hundreds that have been paralyzed in recent weeks by massive student demonstrations calling for education reform in Chile.
The sign sums up the pent-up frustrations in one of Latin America's most stable economies, whose modern sewage plants, envied subway system, and automated-toll superhighways are icons of Chile's rapid economic growth. Meanwhile, many of the country's public schools are in dire need of new infrastructure, resources, and better-trained teachers.
Chile's education system has reached this state after years of neglect and outdated teacher training, says Rodrigo Vera, an education expert with the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO). "Even church ceremonies have changed more than our classrooms," says Vera.
He also blames what he calls a misguided faith in privatized services: "We've had a neoliberal-system way of trying to organize health and education, and after 30 years of this model we find that the market has produced differences and not equity."
In recent weeks, massive protests by high school students have captured the nation's attention with their cries for greater equity, becoming the largest mass mobilizations here in 30 years. Almost 800,000 students took to the streets in a national strike May 30.
The general public expressed widespread sympathy, with many hospitals and workplaces decked with posters of support. The Education Ministry was even shut down for a day as bureaucrats there joined the protest.
Since the return to democracy in 1990, the ruling center-left coalition, La Concertación, has made strides in confronting many social inequalities, including halving the country's poverty rate (just 18 percent today). But, despite tripling its spending on public education, quality schooling is still only accessible to those who can afford costly private schools.
"Chile's model of development has relegated social progress at a key moment in its rapid development," says Alfredo Astorga, a regional education analyst with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) office in Santiago, which was taken over by two dozen students last week in a passive sit-in to try to raise international awareness.
Astorga says Chile's educational system shines compared to other less-developed countries in the region. Its rural schools fare well comparatively, its literacy rate is high, and almost 100 percent of Chilean children now attend school.
But the protesters, it seems, expect more from a country that is in many respects already a developed nation. When compared to international indicators, Astorga says Chile's results are poor. In 2000, Chile came last in a test on reading levels held in 22 countries by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Later that year, a Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test on science and math levels ranked Chile 35th among 38 nations.
On the bright side, Astorga says an impressive 35 percent of Chileans go on to higher education, but he points out that there are huge disparities in access which reveal the gaping inequalities between public and private schools.
Almost 15 percent of Chilean high school kids study in fully privatized schools, 35 percent are in municipal public schools, and the remaining 50 percent attend cheaper private schools with state subsidies. But according to Vera, only a handful of subsidized schools manage to achieve the results of those in the private system. He says almost 90 percent of students in fully privatized schools will go on to university, whereas only 10 to 15 percent do so from subsidized or fully public schools. On national exams, the average scores for students in Chile's public schools are almost half that of their counterparts in private schools.
Astorga says the disparity is much greater in Chile than in developed nations, which reflects the country's deep social stratification.
In her state of the nation address May 21, President Michelle Bachelet defended the record of her ruling coalition, saying almost 100 percent of Chilean kids are now attending school and they've improved teacher training programs.
Students stepped up their protests days later, saying they've been ignored by a succession of left-wing governments.
"We're fully aware of the educational system we have and we want to change it so that Chile can become a developed country. And not just for a select few," says Juan Ahumada, one of the students who staged the sit-in at UNESCO offices.
Less than 100 days into her mandate, this is the first major crisis for Bachelet, who vowed to reduce Chile's social inequalities during her campaign.
Her Education Minister, Martin Zilic, met recently with student leaders and began making concessions after violent street protests left some 20 people injured, more than 700 arrested, and millions of dollars of property damage.
Days later Bachelet made them a first-and-final offer – a $200-million package that covered most of their demands, including funds to improve infrastructure in more than 1,000 schools, and bus passes and free university selection exams for all but the richest 20 percent of Chilean students. Bachelet also announced a multi-sector commission to recommend deeper reforms to the education system.
But FLACSO analyst Marcela Rios says Bachelet's approach was "haphazard." Her proposals fail to get to the heart of the problem.
"This could have been a golden opportunity for the government," says Ms. Rios. "It's been clear for a very long time that one of the major problems that hampers the country from being able to move forward ... has to do with social inequality ... and the educational system is at the core of this."
Student groups rejected Bachelet's package, insisting they be given 50 percent representation on her new commission. But last week, Bachelet made it clear her initial offer was final, and she named just six high school students and six university representatives to the 73-member commission.
On Friday, student unions announced they would return to classes, but continue to pressure the government. On Monday, they announced a "parallel commission" to shadow the presidential council.