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THE POLITICS OF STUDENT PROTEST AND EDUCATION REFORM IN CHILE: CHALLENGING THE NEOLIBERAL STATE1 Mary Rose Kubal Associate Professor, Department of Political Science St. Bonaventure University Eloy Fisher Chief Economic Adviser and Director Office of Economic and Financial Advisory of the Comptroller General of the Republic of Panama and Visiting Professor and Research Fellow of the Catholic University of Panama In 2006 at the beginning Michelle Bachelet’s first presidency (2006–10), a series of high school student protests escalated into the largest protest movement seen in Chile since the transition to electoral democracy in 1990. The scale of the protests took the Bachelet administration, the public, and even the student leaders by surprise. At the heart of their demands was the imperative to address the inequality of the neoliberal school choice system implemented during the Pinochet regime (1973–90). A new General Education Law (LGE) replaced the Pinochet-era education statute, but did not fundamentally change the structure of the school choice system. In 2011, during the conservative government of Sebastián Piñera (2010–14), university students led an even more protracted cycle of protests, demanding a new constitution and social welfare regime and major reforms in higher education. In the midst of continued protest and policy stalemate, Bachelet was elected to a second term (2014–18) promising a new constitution and a deepening of education reform. The recent cycle of student protests raises important questions regarding the nature of the interaction between the Chilean student movement and the country’s political establishment—with implications for education policy and the quality of Chile’s democracy. How did the student movement take advantage of and ultimately change the political context in order to achieve some of its policy demands? Why has the second Bachelet government been able to pass much of the education policy agenda it was unable to deliver four years earlier while student leaders remain dissatisfied ? In addressing these questions, we follow Meyer’s (2005) admonition to focus on “the relevant policy monopoly.” To understand the trajectory of the student protests and their outcomes, we take into account not only the institutional context and political interests of powerful state and societal actors, but also the power of ideas and discourses to circumscribe policy options and to exclude “non-expert” C  2016 Southeastern Council on Latin American Studies and Wiley Periodicals, Inc. DOI: 10.1111/tla.12075 217 The Latin Americanist, June 2016 actors from the policy field. As Baumgartner and Jones (2009, 7) observe, the ideas that support policy monopolies “are generally connected to core political values which can be communicated directly and simply through image and rhetoric.” In Chile, the rhetoric focused on consumer choice and the “depoliticization” of education policy. During the Pinochet regime “to have a political agenda at all was to distort the true workings of the market ,” which—despite its redistribution of economic resources to a powerful minority—was presented as “politically neutral” (Paley 2001, 199). Nowhere was this dynamic more stark than in education where consumer choice became the main avenue for participation. Under pressure to increase citizen participation, post-transition governments created a master discourse that “dissociate[d] the idea of change from the idea of confrontation” (Enrique Correa quoted in Donoso 2015, 11). “Technopols” from the governing center-left Concertación parties appropriated knowledge production to discount the experiences of popular social organizations and framed citizen demands for state resources as threats to democratic consolidation and outside of proper channels for participation (Paley 2001). This discourse with its emphasis on technical ability and expertise naturalized the exclusion of social actors from the policy making process. Within the education policy monopoly a highly technical “coordinative” discourse, grounded in public choice assumptions , made it difficult for social actors unfamiliar with the technical jargon and latest research findings to follow, let alone participate.2 We argue that the students’ ability to present a challenging discourse that called attention to the undemocratic nature of the policy process was an important mechanism for policy change. This framework helps us to bridge the gap between the social movement literature, which often treats the policy process as “a black box within the state,” and the public...