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Chile's Bachelet sends education reform to Congress following street protests demanding change

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet announced the first stage of her promised education reforms on Monday, proposing an end to state subsidies of for-profit schools — a step toward eventual free university education.

Bachelet said she is answering the call of millions of students who have staged protests since 2011 demanding deep changes in an educational system that fails them with poor-quality public schools and expensive private universities.

"We're taking the first step toward Chile's most significant education reform in 50 years," Bachelet said in announcing the reform package.

"We're following through with what our students repeatedly said: education is a right, not a privilege."

The bill heading to Congress on Tuesday would cut subsidies to for-profit schools and forbid government-backed primary schools and kindergartens from rejecting students on the basis of tests or interviews.

Funds instead would go to lower or eliminate the fees parents pay at other institutions.

Still to come is a proposal that would make university education free, a measure that will be sent to Congress later this year.

Critics say policies launched under the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet foster social exclusion and inequality.

Schools in Chile were free before Pinochet pushed privatization and ended central control and funding of primary and secondary schools. Public education in poorer districts suffered even as a voucher system directed billions of dollars in public funds to privately run high schools.

Today, Chileans pay a greater share of their incomes for education than any nation surveyed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The student protests began under the 2006-10 presidency of Bachelet, who appeased some students by naming a commission including several of their leaders, and shuffling her Cabinet. But many others were left disappointed.

Bachelet who took office in March, now plans to partly finance her education reform by increasing corporate taxes gradually by 5 percent to raise some 8.2 billion. The tax bill was approved by the lower house last week and will now be debated by the Senate.

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Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao