Voucher Education in Chile

Photo courtesy of Carlos Reusser Monsálvez via Flickr.

Childhood education in Chile is a good example of how a military dictatorship can be better than a democracy. The Pinochet government radically revamped education in Chile in 1981 and has become a successful laboratory studied by researchers around the world. Prior to that time, the national government was a democracy that operated most schools for children, enrolling 80% of students, using a national curriculum. According to Education Next:

Since 1981 Chile has had a more comprehensive school choice system than any other country in the world, as well as a system of publicly available information on student test performance.


The reform abolished the national curriculum and transferred power to children, parents, municipal governments and private schools using a voucher system. The reform was intended to abolish the monopoly in favor of a competitive system. As in most countries, real estate developers who construct schools and publishers who sell textbooks can legally earn profits, but Chile adds a innovation only a capitalist would love: private school operators can legally earn profits, too!

Role of Government and Private Subsidized Schools
Private schools can use admissions tests to screen applicants, but cannot interview parents, whereas municipal schools must accept all students. Unlike most countries, any school can fire a teacher. Municipal schools receive additional subsidies from the national government for students who are poor. As in the USA, municipal government schools are better in rich areas than poor areas, and socialists pressure the government to steal from the rich and give to the poor.

Private schools have gained market share over municipal government schools during the last 20 years; slightly more than half the students attend private schools. In most countries, very few parents spend even 15 minutes of serious discussion about their studies each week with their children. Parents are often tempted to neglect their responsibilities when they give their children to government schools in exchange for free babysitting.

Replicating Successful School Experiments
Interestingly, smaller schools perform no better than government schools in Chile, but networks of 2 or more private schools train students to perform better than government schools on standardized tests. About 80% of private schools subsidized by the national government are single schools or part of a network of 2-3 schools, while the remainder are in larger chains of more than 3 schools.

U.S. observers are watching Chile because many USA “charter” schools are expanding into networks, as noted by Education Next. Is the success of the networks due to their stronger education system, community involvement or brand awareness? Will the young industry consolidate around successful networks and practices, silencing socialist critics?

Tyranny Lurks Even in Chile
Schooling is compulsory until age 18, so the graduation rate is as high as France, and higher than Spain and Italy, apparently in the mistaken belief that schooling and education are synonymous. Chile is a freer country than most, but some tyrannies remain; the government is a proponent of protracted childhood, but not with as much overindulgence as the USA.

Chile Compared to Other Rich Countries
The national government continues to fund vouchers and imposes few requirements on private schools. About 10% of the students in Chile and 13% in Santiago attend private schools that are not subsidized. Government spending on education as a percentage of GDP has been reduced from 4.8% in 1970 to 3.4% in 2007, but there are no plans to phase out government involvement to create a free market.

The international PISA test of 15 year old students suggests that Chile is approaching the richest countries and that the richest 20% of Chileans performed as well as the average student in Singapore, the richest country in the world:

Country Grad. rate PISA Reading Per capita GDP Gov. edu. spending (% GDP)
Chile 68% 449 $14,341 3.4
Chile municipal NA 421 NA NA
Chile private subsidized NA 458 NA NA
Chile private unsubsidized NA 540 NA NA
Chile richest 20% NA 512 NA NA
Singapore 98% 526 $50,523 3.2
USA 89% 500 $46,381 5.7
France 70% 496 $33,679 5.6
Portugal 28% 489 $21,859 5.3
Spain 51% 481 $29,689 4.3
Italy 53% 486 $29,109 4.8
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