These Students Want to Shut Down Chile’s SAT
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Chile's students are tired of inequality.
Ayelen Salgado and Victor Chanfreau have just finished high school, but the 18 year olds can’t pinpoint the last time they went to class. They both admit they skipped quite a lot in the past year, “but we made sure we got good grades,” says Chanfreau, earnestly.
It’s not because they’re slackers — the pair have kept busy as lead spokespeople of the student-run Coordinating Assembly for Secondary Students (known by the Spanish-language acronym ACES). Their main fight is for equal education in one of the world’s most unequal countries.
“Education in Chile is a privilege, not a right,” says Salgado. “Public education here is terrible, and the only people who can access higher education are those who go to school in privileged areas.” She and Chanfreau both went to private schools themselves, and say they’re speaking up for those who cannot.
Since October, Chile has been roiled by unrest. Large protests against the rising costs of living and inequality have pulled millions of people onto the streets. Strong police repression has left more than 400 protesters blinded by police anti-riot weapons, with thousands injured and at least 27 dead.
Dialogue with the government is just an illusion, a way for them to stop the protests and change nothing.
The country’s highly privatized education system is one of the core issues behind the discontent. To get into higher education, a standardized exam is required — the Prueba de Selección Universitaria (PSU) — one that reveals a yawning gap reflective of poorly funded schools. In 2018, students from public schools scored 475 points on average, compared to 611 points for private school students. Most public universities only accept students who earn around the 600-point mark — putting higher education out of reach for most low-income people. “Paradoxically, the richest students are those who go to the best public universities,” concludes ACES’ manifesto against the PSU.
Students have been petitioning against the PSU for more than a decade, yet the government’s Ministry of Education has done little to address the issue. Chanfreau and Salgado continue to fight against the exam, yet with more drastic measures than their predecessors: They organized a boycott. “It’s not the context for tepid responses,” says Salgado defiantly.
On Jan. 6-7, when the PSU was administered, students occupied schools and burned their exam papers. Others published the answers to the exam online. Many clashed with police. The exam was rescheduled to the end of January for the 200,000 students affected. Once again, ACES declared a boycott. Much of the same happened.
“Dialogue with the government is just an illusion, a way for them to stop the protests and change nothing,” Chanfreau says. “And we don’t share their same values. We don’t want to sit and talk with the people who are responsible for mutilating the eyes of hundreds of our peers.”
Many Chileans are critical of Chanfreau and Salgado for deliberately creating the chaos. #ACESTERRORISTA trended on Twitter, largely buoyed by right-wing commentators, but many liberals believe the students’ measures are too extreme.
Patty Muñoz, head of child rights organization Defensoria de la Niñez, shares ACES’ criticism of the PSU, yet disagrees with Chanfreau’s and Salgado’s actions. “They disturbed the right of the young people who wanted to take the test,” she told the national newspaper La Cooperativa.
Salgado justifies their all-or-nothing approach by referencing the metro evasions in October, the spark that ignited the country’s social movement. Hordes of secondary school students began jumping turnstiles to protest a $0.04 increase in metro fees. A wider public then took to the streets supporting the students’ demands. In the face of growing unrest and outrage, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera canceled the fare hike. “We do something concrete, and that’s what works,” says Salgado.
Now some universities are considering reforming their admission processes to consider grades rather than PSU results. But the government itself has responded harshly to the boycott, filing a lawsuit against Salgado and Chanfreau as threats to public safety and order. If found guilty, they face up to three years in prison.
Many educators, artists and organizations have rallied support for the pair. “At first, the government dismissed them like ignorant children,” says Sergio Estrada Arellano, a historian at Santiago’s Universidad de Mayor. “But ACES are protagonists in the story of today’s social change. They have all the strength to develop the social transformation that the country needs.”
Salgado and Chanfreau certainly don’t look like menaces. They dress like the high schoolers they are — scruffy T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. They both speak quickly, eager to get their point across. Chanfreau fidgets and moves constantly, while Salgado slouches in the summer heat.
They both share a family history that explains their anger and cynicism toward the state. In 1974, at the beginning of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, Chanfreau’s grandfather was tortured by police and disappeared, never to be found. Three years later, Salgado’s grandfather was shot and killed by police. “Their fight was similar to the one we have today, a fight to live with dignity,” says Salgado. “Most of us students had family that was tortured or killed during the dictatorship. People who aren’t here today, but their ideas still live with us.”
Despite their strong convictions, the two share a sense of lightheartedness, something that’s evident in the way they exchange laughs and poke fun at each other. Chanfreau’s best word to describe his colleague is “sleepy,” before adding that she’s “transparent, some of the times.” Salgado says Chanfreau is funny and she likes listening to music with him.
When asked what type of music, they look at each other and laugh. “Tell the truth, Ayelen,” smirks Chanfreau.
She smiles and replies, “A lot of reggaeton and trap. Excessively.” It’s a fittingly urban soundtrack for those who believe in the power of taking to the streets.