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In Chile, students adopt a new form of protest

Rather than occupying buildings students are attending classes. They are just refusing to say "present."

Carrera was sitting at a table outside his school, wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a yellow and black kufiya in front of a sign that read: “Information about mobilizations,” and a can for donations. He is member of the school’s student council, and was on shift as information officer for passers-by who stopped to ask what the purpose was of the chairs piled up at the entrance and the loud music from the patio.

His school is one of the most prestigious all-male public institutions in the country. Over the past half-century, it has produced many presidents — but that was back when Chile prided itself on its public education system, when public universities were actually free, and before the economic lines dividing schools became so stark.

Fernanda Figueroa, a 12th grader from an all-girls’ public school, cited the problems in her institution. “Our school has a ton of structural problems. The library has no books. The green areas promised to us ever since I entered school are nowhere to be seen," she said. "The gym has never been repaired. I have younger brothers, and I don’t want them to go through what we are going through."

Most teachers and school directors support the students' demands, and are playing along with the absentee student roll call. They have seen their wages fall, infrastructure deteriorate without repair, and shrinking budgets for materials, projects and training.

When students began their protest, the Teachers Union had just put an end to a three-week strike to demand bonuses owed them since 2007 which the municipalities had spent on other items.

The National Institute, Carrera's school, publicly supported its students. “We hold the Education Ministry responsible for providing equal and quality public education, independent of the rules of the market … In light of the failure of the municipalized education system, we totally agree with our students’ ultimate goals,” school officials said in a statement.

The government insists that the solution lies in bills currently in Congress, which would create a superintendent of education and an agency for the quality of education. But none of these bills calls for overturning the municipalization of public education, which students, parents and teachers see as the root of the problem.