SANTIAGO, Chile — More than six months after they launched nationwide protests to reform education in Chile, student activists have won widespread public support, inspired similar actions in other parts of South America and politically damaged billionaire-turned-President Sebastian Pinera.
What they haven't done is bring about any of the major changes they claim are needed to save their schools, chief among them greater public funding to make education fairer and affordable.
College tuition in Chile still ranks among the highest in the world, comparable to education costs in the world's richest countries, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, an economic research and standards-setting body based in Paris. Chile's per-capita income of $15,400 a year, meanwhile, is just 72nd out of 227 nations in household earnings.
Chileans pay 85 percent of the cost of a university education out of their own pockets, more than in any other developed nation, the OECD found.
Pinera's position is that not all higher education should be free. He has also shot down demands to rescind federal funding provided to 31 percent of the nation's high schools that are privately run. Protesters want that money to go to the public high schools, which they say are woefully underfunded.
In recent weeks, government threats to revoke the grants and scholarships of university students who skip school have thinned the number at marches, and many have returned to class. Organizers now have trouble drawing the 200,000 participants they used to bring to protests when the movement started.
The protests have knotted traffic in the center of the city's capital, Santiago, and have forced tens of thousands of students to lose out on coursework necessary to advance to the next level of their education, even as parents continued to foot the bill.
For all of the sacrifice the protests have exacted, student leaders acknowledge that they've won but a handful of minor concessions.
"We face a right-wing government that has bet on wearing us down, a strategy that has been very effective ... at radicalizing and criminalizing the movement," said student leader Camila Vallejo, referring to the hooded radicals who have been showing up at marches in greater numbers. "At this point, all we have is the resistance and some partial victories."
Still, the students say they are prepared to carry the fight into next year. This week, they rejected a proposal developed by opposition legislators behind closed doors to increase government funding for all education by 8.6 percent, calling it an agreement "that betrays the principles of this movement."
At the heart of the standoff are dueling visions of Chilean education that emerged during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
The country's schools had previously been free to all students, but the regime pushed a free market-based approach and cleared the way for more private universities, as well as an eventual voucher system that directs billions of dollars in public funds to privately run high schools.
As the student protesters have pointed out, the vouchers fail to cover an estimated 20 percent of school costs, and many families must pitch in to fill the gap.
Student leaders have denounced the system as a cornerstone of social inequality in a country with one of the widest income gaps in Latin America and are demanding a return to the old system of free public universities. That would mean raising taxes on the rich to subsidize widespread free education, the students argue.
Perhaps the biggest losers in the battle are the public high schools, routinely of poor quality because their government funding does not begin to meet their needs, the protesters say.
Pinera has said that an ideal structure "is a mixed system, in which there is private education and public education."
"What we have said is that (a university) education will be free for all young people who can't pay for it, but those who can pay for it should make an effort to do so," Pinera said last month.
Pinera has proposed ensuring a free university education to 40 percent of Chile's poorest families, who earn less than about $500 a month, an offer that would eventually increase to 60 percent.
Chilean education expert Patricio Meller argues that doing away with private universities won't halt the soaring cost of tuition, which is hitting all institutions as enrollment rises. As long as schools set their own rates, costs will continue to grow, Meller said in a recent newspaper interview.
"All the problems, in their origin, lie in the market," Meller said. "If for-profit universities are closed, this isn't going to stop the accelerated increase in tuition. This isn't going to increase student credit. This isn't going to decrease the cost of credit. ... The university students have confused profit with the market."
After playing defense for months, Pinera has recently taken a harder stand toward the protesters, including pushing a law to penalize anyone who incites rioting or acts of violence such as the occupation of schools or university campuses. Chile has seen more than 40 student marches, many of them resulting in vandalism and violence, since the movement began.
Still, support for the students remains high among Chileans: 67 percent last month compared to 79 percent in September.
While admitting disappointment, the students point out the modest gains they have made.
Interest rates on university student loans have been reduced from 6 percent to 2 percent; Congress has discussed refinancing debt for 110,000 people behind in their payments; and opposition lawmakers have promised they won't reach any backroom deals with the government, student leader Vallejo said.
Perhaps the students' biggest accomplishment has been the attention they've won worldwide, as images of empty schools and massive protests circulated worldwide for months. That has inspired action around the region, with students in Argentina, Brazil and Colombia also taking to the streets to demand more public investment in education.
"The state should be responsible" for financing education, said Juan Sebastian Lopez, 24, a law student at the private Universidad Externado in Bogota, Colombia. "Our fear is that it will become like it is in Chile."
As part of their long-term strategy, Chilean students have shifted away from protests and are instead lobbying the ruling party and center-left opposition in Congress to implement their demands.
On top of that, Vallejo said students could secure permanent gains by running as candidates in the 2012 elections for 345 mayorships plus hundreds of other city positions.
"There is a lack of representation in Congress," she said. "This is a reality and I hope young people empower themselves and realize that this is the way to change the country."
Marta Lagos, director of the Latinobarometro polling company in Chile, said, "It is clear that future politicians are going to emerge from this group."
The reality for Chilean students, though, remains unchanged.
Javiera Kobayashi Duran's father still works three jobs at a woodworking shop, a door factory and a Web-design company so that the 20-year-old can study at the prestigious private Catholic University in Santiago. Ten months of tuition and school supplies cost the family $12,000, and the expenses will rise as Kobayashi Duran's brother enters college in 2013.
"I know my family is sacrificing a lot so that I can study," Kobayashi Duran said. "Because of this, I'm taking advantage of the opportunity that they are giving me. I study a lot."
Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.
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