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What the United States Can Learn From Chile

08/29/2013 10:17 am ET | Updated Oct 29, 2013

This summer I had the opportunity to live in Santiago, Chile while working for the non-profit Educación2020. While I've traveled abroad before, I have never spent so much time in one place. After two months, one gets a sense of a country's people, culture, and politics and you learn some surprising things about your own. Here are five reflections from my time in Chile.

The Power of Protest
Chile has the second most socioeconomically segregated school system in the world. Chilean students face increasing student debt often for education they don't see as worthwhile. Chilean students like those in the U.S. are frustrated; the difference is that they have chosen to do something about it.

Twice during my stay in Chile, there were 50,000 to 100,000 person protests led by the Confederation of Chilean Student Federations that brought the streets of Santiago to a standstill. As a result, the nightly news frequently featured education stories and the country's current presidential candidates repeatedly talked about education in their stump speeches. Most importantly, something is being done. Since their founding in 2008, 13 of Educación2020's initial 17 policy proposals have been signed into law and are currently being implemented.

What a Well Run Non-profit Can Do
I was amazed at the prominence and effectiveness of Educación2020. Founded in 2008 by a professor and a group of students, Educación2020 works to improve the equity and quality of education in Chile. They articulate the country's education problems, develop policy proposals and initiate legislation with a 200,000 person strong social media following. In addition, they directly assist 12 school districts impacting over 40,000 students a year. They manage to do all of this for a little less than a million dollars a year.

The 2011 budget of the America's Promise Alliance was 16 million dollars. It would be interesting to compare the effectiveness and impact of these two organizations and the other organizations working on education in Washington. In the United States, we have difficulty even building the political pressure to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Maybe it's time to create an American Educación2020 to jumpstart our own education conversation.

Vouchers Do Not Work
After the Pinochet regime, Chile implemented one of the most conservative education systems in the world. The government provides schools, both public and private, with a certain amount of money based on the number of students that choose to attend. Chile's problem is that every school has a certain set of operational costs (i.e. the copy machine, electricity, and the principal's salary). The best schools are those at capacity as they can afford a number of extras above the standard operation costs. These schools are few and far between and often cost extra money to attend.

The result is a mediocre school system where schools don't get the money they need to excel because they are not at capacity and therefore don't have the budgets for extras. Additionally, schools become more competitive with each other and don't share best practices. Vouchers only work by increasing regulation, which leads to larger bureaucracy, and more standardized testing.

International Education
One of the things I found surprising about Chile is the knowledge Chileans have about what else is happening in the world. The most prevalent testament to this is the nightly news. The hour-long nightly news is divided into two segments. There is 30 minutes on domestic news and a 30 minute segment on international news.

How would our personal perspectives and political views change if we spent 30 minutes each night learning about what is going on around the globe? Foreigners are most certainly learning about what is going on in the U.S.

Environmental Awareness
My last reflection is how much lighter the Chilean environmental footprint is compared to the United States. Because of the high cost of electricity there is never an unused light left on at my host family's home and appliances are always left unplugged when not in use. There is no central heating and I almost always wore a jacket when inside the house. Finally, clothes driers are incredible luxuries -- even in the dead of winter, we air dried clothes in front of my family's gas heater. At times I was cold and on occasion I went to work with slightly damp jeans but I lived like a Chilean does.

Arguably, these comparisons demonstrate differences between well-developed countries and those still developing. However, the United States is not going to lead the world on climate change unless we start taking more action at home to reduce our own environmental footprint. Why should Chileans make additional sacrifices when our standard of living is so beyond theirs?