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Chile: Led by Students, Tens of Thousands March for 'Free Public Education'

Students and teachers continue their demands that the privatized education system created under Pinochet be dismantled and reformed

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Students clash with riot police during a protest to demand Chilean President Sebastian Pinera's government to improve the public education quality, in Santiago, on October 17, 2013. (Photo: AFP Photo/Hector Retamal)More than 50,000 students, unionized teachers, and social activists took to the streets in Santiago, Chile on Thursday to demand dramatic reforms to the nation's education system ahead of next month's presidential elections.

The education reform movement, which demands the return of public control over schools and universities and 'free education,' has been an increasingly important voice in Chilean politics in recent years with large street protests and organized opposition to the ruling conservative government of President Sebastián Piñera.

On Thursday, according to the Santiago Times, the student-led protests came out in force in order to "send a message to the next government" and promised that their revolt would continue until their demands are answered with real policy changes.

“There is no way this social outcry will stop next year,” Moisés Paredes, spokesman for the highschool student association Cones, said.

“The message we want to send to the next government is that it can’t pretend there won’t be demonstrations next year, that this is all settled, that everything can be resolved with discussions of their education programs,” Paredes told The Santiago Times. “On the contrary, it is crucial to understand that next year the movement will be more present than ever.”

The Santiago Times continued:

Education has been central to presidential debates, a state-of-affairs student leaders credit to the success of the movement in forcing a debate on the current system.

While the students’ calls for free education and an end to profit-making have been ignored by the governing right-leaning Alianza coalition, the majority of the nine presidential candidates are in favor of overhauling the current education system to varying degrees.

And Global Post adds:

Leaders of the student movement [...] asked the candidates vying for the presidency in the Nov. 17 election to provide specifics of their education proposals.

The two serious contenders, center-left former President Michelle Bachelet and rightist Evelyn Matthei, have so far limited themselves to vague platitudes, according to Diego Vela, president of the students federation at Universidad Catolica.

Matthei seems to want to "deepen" the current model, Vela said, adding that while Bachelet, who governed from 2006-2010, says some positive things, she has yet to offer concrete proposals.

Regardless of who is president, the students will continue to agitate until they achieve their goals, Vela said.

Pinochet, who led the bloody Sept. 11, 1973, coup that removed elected President Salvador Allende, pursued free-market fundamentalism and privatization during his repressive 17-year rule.

He reshaped Chile's education system in 1981, slashing government support for public schools and giving municipalities control over how to spend the reduced amounts coming from Santiago.

Private schools mushroomed under the military regime and the trend continued after democracy was restored in 1990.

Photos captured the street protests on Thursday and some of the violent confrontations which culminated:

Students protest in Santiago just one month before Chile goes to the polls, insist the movement is the answer to the education crisis, not any one candidate. (Photos: Santiago Times)

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