The Political Economy of Education Quality Assurance: Market Fundamentalism and the Battle over School Rankings in Chile (2006-2016)

Gabriel Chouhy, Tulane University

Scholars in historical sociology have stressed the paramount role ideas and morality played in the global shift to market-based reform since the 1980s, a process that incrementally subjected traditionally de-commodified social spheres, such as education, to market rules. This paper takes up this classical thesis to focus not on the revival of market fundamentalism, but on its momentous retrenchment: the moral/ideological dilemmas over the regulation and rollback of market-based education in Chile. Analyzing in-depth interviews with education stakeholders, policy documents, congressional debates, and session minutes of regulatory agencies, I reconstruct the political process through which social movement claims for prioritizing public schools after decades of government-sponsored privatization led Congress to formally proclaim “quality education” as a constitutional entitlement and engage in market regulation to secure it. Specifically, I examine the controversies over the Education Quality Assurance Law of 2011, which mandated test-based categorizations of school quality to hold providers (schools) responsible to consumers (students). First, I show that lawmakers charged regulators with adjusting school rankings by measures of student socioeconomic status to curb mounting criticism that quality metrics oblivious to class-based school segregation unfairly stigmatized public schools with high concentration of low-SES students, thereby fostering exit to voucher-funded private schools. Then I investigate a social movement campaign, Alto al SIMCE, orchestrated in response to the intensification of testing that followed the implementation of quality assurance regulation. I show how the second cycle of student protests of 2011 against market-based education created opportunities for young activist scholars in charge of this campaign to frame test-based accountability as a pernicious market technology. Finally, I examine policymakers’ response to this challenge, which resulted in the partial rollback and softening of the accountability regime, accompanied with measures both to restrict the use of rankings for “exit” and promote “voice” as mechanism of quality improvement.

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 Presented in Session 9. Data in Education: Assessment, Measurement, and Accounting