SANTIAGO — It's the latest form of student protest in Chile: Thousands of high school students, who want more equality in the public education system, are refusing to say "present" during roll call.

The effort represents a departure from the classical student protest in Chile, which tends to involve the physical occupation of schools, barricades, a suspension of classes and marches. This new form of protest, meanwhile, is pinching Chile's school system where it hurts the most: the municipal coffer.

Here's why: These students, from some of the most traditional public schools in the capital, are marked absent when they refuse to declare "present." Each municipal government is given a subsidy according to the number of students in attendance. Therefore, the more students that are absent, the lower the subsidies.

These students announced the "cultural occupation" of their schools the first week of June. Although they are going to classes, they aren't saying "present," and after school hours, they are attending protests and cultural activities.

“My parents think I am just fooling around to miss classes, but that’s not true. I’m not even missing classes. It’s for our future, for other generations to have a much better education and not be so ignorant. It’s so we can become a more developed country,” 16-year-old Kritzya Ortiz, a student at an all-girls’ school, said as folk singers entertained students with politically charged songs one afternoon.

The students' demands are simple: quality education for all. The only way to achieve this, they say, is through a state-managed system.

Chile's public education system underwent a transformation in 1981, when the military dictatorship transferred the management of and funding for public schools from the central education ministry to the municipalities.

Now, “the richer municipalities, or where rich people live, have more income than the municipalities in poor parts of town. So the rich get more resources and better quality education," said Simon Carrera, a senior at the National Institute and future medical student. "We want education to be the same for students everywhere, and that’s only possible if the Education Ministry manages the system and distributes the resources equally."

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.

Massive student protests in 2006 — which sought to end to profit-making in education and the municipalization of public education — brought the rise of a new student movement, then dubbed the “penguin revolution” in reference to the navy blue and white school uniforms. At the time, a million high school students — supported by university students — shut down their schools and protested for more than a month, prompting the government to create a special commission on education system reforms.

But the government so watered down the commission’s recommendations that the law — now on the brink of enactment — bears no resemblance to the students’ original demands, and is fiercely opposed by students, teachers and parents. The government has introduced two complementary bills to the law, which are now before congressional committees. Still, none of these bills satisfy the educational community.

On June 21, representatives of several universities, high schools and the Teachers Union demanded that the government withdraw the bills and wait for the proposals of a “National Congress on Education” they are organizing for late August.

Some of the candidates vying for election in December have heard the message. The government candidate, Eduardo Frei, recently announced that as president, he would promote major educational reform with a greater role for the state, but he stops short of calling for an end to the municipalization of schools. Independent candidate Marco Enriquez-Ominami and the candidate on the left, Jorge Arrate, are supporting the outright de-municipalization of education.

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