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When the funding system is the problem: the Chilean experience of vouchers in education

Cristián Bellei
Traduction(s) :
Lorsque le système de financement constitue le problème : l’expérience chilienne des chèques en éducation


Depuis les années 1980, l’État chilien a fait le choix de créer un marché de l’éducation en finançant la quasi-totalité de l’éducation par l’intermédiaire de bons d’éducation (vouchers) versés aux écoles choisies par les parents, créant ainsi les conditions d’un développement considérable de l’enseignement privé. L’accroissement escompté des performances du système éducatif ne s’est pas produit et la ségrégation sociale s’est accrue. Depuis, les politiques éducatives successives ont tenté de corriger ces effets non désirés, à travers une intervention croissante de l’État dans le fonctionnement du système éducatif, en s’attaquent à la qualité des enseignants au travers de leur formation et de leur statut, en intervenant dans la gestion des établissements aux performances insuffisantes et en éliminant les droits d’inscriptions demandés aux familles.

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1The Chilean state funds the education of about 93% of the K-12 student population through a competitive voucher system, that is to say, a per capita amount that “follows the student.” The state voucher is available in equal terms to all schools—both public and private, with and without profit motives, and including religious schools. Families can choose freely which schools their children attend, without geographical restrictions. However, private schools are not required to admit all applicants, and they can also charge tuition to families in addition to the state voucher. The Chilean state requires minimum conditions to open schools and obtain public funding (basic standards for school facilities, curriculum, and teachers) and does not control the use of the funds or the profit of the schools’ owners. Inspired by economic neoliberalism, this arrangement (imposed during Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1980) was intended to trigger market dynamics in education, making schools compete for families’ preferences with the expectation that this competition would improve the general quality of the education system: either low quality schools would “react” to competition by improving their service, or—in the case of no reaction—bad schools would be “replaced” by better schools that families would prefer.

2This “market-oriented educational system” caused a major transformation in Chilean education, one which modified some of its historical and more distinctive features. Voucher private schools multiplied exponentially and today they educate the majority of Chilean students; within the private sector, for-profit schools have increased the most; public education (administered by local municipalities since the 1980s) has reduced its share from almost 90% to less than 40% of the national enrollment and weakened dramatically. Additionally, the private sector is highly atomized, which, added to the weakness of the public sector, causes professional capacities and institutional capacities at the local level to be extremely poor in Chile. Privatization and market competition did not produce an increase in educational quality: students’ academic achievement has not shown any significant increase linked to market dynamics, and private schools are not more effective than public schools, on average. Moreover, evidence shows an increase in grade retention and dropout rates associated with more intense market competition. There is no evidence that private schools have more rich or diverse educational projects or curriculum designs; on the contrary, private schools tend to spend less money on critical educational resources, such as teacher experience and teacher salaries. Finally, there is strong evidence that relates this market system with extreme socioeconomic segregation within Chilean schools, high inequity in academic achievement, and widespread discriminatory practices against students with low performance or poor behavior and against families based on socioeconomic, cultural, and religious motives, both during the school admission process and throughout the schooling period.

3Since 1990, democratic governments have implemented many programs and policies to solve some of the problems just mentioned. The philosophy (theory of action) of those policies has changed over time: first (1990 to about 2008), to a view that attempted to “complement market dynamics” with state interventions; then, (2008 to 2014) to a view that tried to “govern the market”; and most recently (2014 to the present), to a view that seeks to diminish or eliminate market dynamics in education:

Policies to improve quality

4Beginning in 1990, a variety of school improvement programs were implemented; they combined investments in educational materials and teacher training to foment pedagogical innovation (including in-school collective professional learning among teachers). Participation in those programs was voluntary, and they strongly promoted the prominence of teachers at the school level to introduce more active and challenging pedagogy. Then, starting in the early 2000s, more directive and structured programs were implemented, especially in low-performing schools and “core” curriculum areas (i.e., language and mathematics); in addition, a large increase in schooling time was mandated. Finally, during the last decade, a new “test-based accountability system” is being implemented, which applies sanctions to schools (including school closure) when a minimum degree of academic performance is not attained, as measured by compulsory official standardized tests (applied yearly to some grades/subjects).

Policies to create professional capital

5In 1991, the government passed a new Teachers’ Statute that regulates basic dimensions of the teaching profession and the teaching labor market; however, the rules of the Teachers’ Statute applied only partially to voucher private schools, which, increasingly, employ the majority of Chilean teachers. In 2015, the government significantly modified this statute to improve teachers’ labor conditions, salaries, and professional development, and now its application is compulsory for the voucher private schools. In addition, since the early 2000s, although more markedly in the last decade, the Chilean state has funded and promoted the creation of a private market of consultants to sell technical assistance services to schools (including curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and management areas) to support school improvement processes. Lastly, in 2017, the government restructured the public education system, creating a national agency of New Public Education and a network of Local Education Services, specialized in education, that are gradually taking control of the administration of all public schools (i.e. replacing the municipalities); those services will be funded directly by the national treasury (i.e., fiscal budget, although their schools will continue to be funded by vouchers).

Policies against discrimination

6In order to facilitate access to voucher private schools that charged tuition, in the mid-1990s a subsidized scholarship system (administrated by the school owner) was created. Then, beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the government imposed basic regulations to prohibit some discriminatory practices during the admission process and to regulate the practice of expelling students. Also, successive governments have created several economic incentives (by increasing the value of the voucher associated to students with certain characteristics) to increase the interest of schools (mainly private schools) in educating students considered to be more “expensive” because they come from families of low socioeconomic status or they have learning difficulties. Finally, due to the persistence of the discriminatory practices mentioned (in spite of the regulations), since 2016 a new centralized school admission system is being implemented. This system is based on families’ preferences: all voucher schools have to accept all applicants if they have available spaces, and a random assignment mechanism is implemented in cases of overdemand. This same reform ended the public funding to for-profit private schools and is gradually eliminating tuition in voucher private schools (by increasing the value of the voucher and creating a new voucher for free schools), thus making all voucher schools free eventually.

7Analytically, it is possible to group Chilean policies attempting to “correct” undesirable market effects into four types: i) “naïve”: direct interventions in school quality believing that it is possible to “complement” the market; ii) “bureaucratic”: expecting to regulate and correct the negative behaviors of school owners and school authorities; iii) “economic”: correcting the voucher value and calibrating the economic incentives for school owners; iv) “technocratic”: designing an evaluation system for school outcomes and linking sanctions to low performance, trusting in standardized assessment to improve education. All these approaches have showed limited (some of them very small) positive results, but severe limitations and undesirable effects as well.


8To conclude, the Chilean case clearly shows the enormous potential transformative power of an institutional framework based on the logic of markets in education, whose core mechanism is the voucher funding system. The Chilean experience also show the tremendous difficulty of attempting to correct the undesirable effects of market dynamics in education, among other reasons, because the market itself ended up debilitating public institutions (which should implement policy changes) and creating a new “common sense” about education (one that does not conceive education as a social right and a public good).

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ÁVALOS B. & BELLEI C. (2019) : « Is Chilean education departing from market-oriented and new public management systems? », in Carlos Ornelas (ed). Politics of Education in Latin America: Reforms, Resistance and Persistence. Boston : Sense-Brill Publishers.

BANCO INTERAMERICANO DE DESARROLLO (2018) : Financiamiento de la educación en Chile. Reporte final, BID.

BELLEI C., CONTRERAS M., CANALES M and ORELLANA V (2018) : « The Production of Socio-economic Segregation in Chilean Education: School Choice, Social Class and Market Dynamics », in Understanding School Segregation. Patterns, Causes and Consequences of Spatial Inequalities in Education, X. Bonal and C. Bellei (ed.), London : Bloomsburry Publishing.

BELLEI C., VANNI X. (2015) : « The Evolution of Educational Policy in Chile 1980-2014 », in S. Schwartzman (ed.), Education in South America, London : Bloomsburry Publishing.

GRAU N., HOJMAN D., and MIZALA A. (2018) : « School closure and educational attainment: Evidence from a market-based system », Economics of Education Review, 65, pp. 1-17.

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Cristián Bellei, « When the funding system is the problem: the Chilean experience of vouchers in education », Revue internationale d’éducation de Sèvres [En ligne], Colloque 2019 : Conditions de réussite des réformes en éducation, mis en ligne le 11 juin 2019, consulté le 27 juin 2019. URL :

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Cristián Bellei

University of Chile
Cristián Bellei is an Associate Researcher at the Center for Advanced Research in Education and Professor in the Sociology Department, both at the University of Chile (Chile). He is Doctor of Education from Harvard University. His last books are The Great Experiment: Market and Privatization of Chilean Education (2015, LOM) and Understanding School Segregation. Patterns, Causes and Consequences of Spatial Inequalities in Education (edited with Xavier Bonal, 2018, Bloomsbury). He has published extensively about Chilean education, mainly regarding education policy, quality, and equity issues.

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