Chile's Students Brace for Another Clash with Cops Over Education Reform

Hunger strikers demanding better education in Chile are barely holding on, as students gear up for yet another clash with police.

Student protesters who have snarled Chile's universities and high schools with weeks of strikes and demonstrations called Monday for a national referendum on their demand for free and high-quality education.

The students also want teachers to join them Tuesday in a nationwide strike, and plan to march again without police permission down the capital's main avenue. When they marched last week, nearly 900 protesters were arrested.

Catholic University student leader Giorgio Jackson said the situation was getting critical because many high school students could lose a year's worth of education and about 40 student hunger strikers can't hold on much longer.

There was no immediate response to the referendum demand from the administration of President Sebastián Piñera.

Chile operates under a constitution inherited from the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and it doesn't provide for referendums in such situations.

Sen. Carlos Larrain, president of Piñera's center-right National Renovation party, told Radio Agricultura that the idea of holding a referendum under pressure from protesters was extremely dangerous and subversive.

But Socialist party leader Osvaldo Andrade told Radio Bio Bio it made sense for such a vote when a country's politicians were so far apart on a divisive issue.

Camila Vallejos, a spokeswoman for protesting university students, said it would be good to let Chile's citizens decide if they want the government to spend more and provide all students with free and improved education.

After two months of marches, strikes and school takeovers, Piñera replaced his education minister and proposed a package of 21 reform measures.

Students rejected the proposal because it doesn't directly address a key demand that private universities invest their income in educational improvements, which protesters say is required by law for nonprofit institutions.

Piñera's approval ratings fell to 26 percent in July, according to a survey by the Center for Public Studies. The same poll, which had an error margin of three percentage points, said 80 percent of Chileans support the students' demands.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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