LUIS ANDRES HENAO
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) -- President Michelle Bachelet announced the first stage of her promised education overhaul Monday, proposing an end to state subsidies to for-profit schools -- a step toward eventual free university education in Chile.
Bachelet said she is answering the call of millions of students who have staged protests since 2011 demanding deep changes in an educational system that fails them with poor-quality public schools and expensive private universities.
"We're taking the first step toward Chile's most significant education reform in 50 years," Bachelet said in announcing the package.
"We're following through with what our students repeatedly said: Education is a right, not a privilege."
The bill heading to Congress on Tuesday would cut subsidies to for-profit schools and forbid government-backed primary schools and kindergartens from rejecting students on the basis of tests or interviews.
Funds now used for the subsidies would go instead to lower or eliminate the fees that parents pay at other institutions.
Still to come is a proposal that would make university education free in Chile. That measure is to be sent to Congress later this year.
Critics say education policies implemented during the 1973-90 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet have fostered social exclusion and inequality.
Schools in Chile were free before Pinochet pushed privatization and ended central control and funding of primary and secondary schools. Public education in poorer districts suffered even as a voucher system directed billions of dollars in public funds to privately run high schools.
Today, Chileans pay a greater share of their incomes for education than any nation surveyed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The student protests began during Bachelet's first term as president, in 2006-10. In this term, she has appeased some students by naming a commission including several of their leaders and shuffling her Cabinet. But many others were left disappointed.
Bachelet, who took office in March, plans to partly finance her education changes by increasing corporate taxes gradually by 5 percentage points to raise some $8.2 billion. The tax bill was approved by the lower house last week and will now be debated by the Senate.
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