Now that many Republican dominated states like Louisiana, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin are enacting vouchers, it is a good time to look at the experience of vouchers in Chile. The Pinochet military dictatorship became infatuated with free-market ideas and imposed vouchers in the early 1980s.

To learn about the Chilean experience with vouchers, I turned to one of Mexico’s best-known independent researchers, Eduardo Andere.

Eduardo Andere writes:

“I began doing research about Chile in 2005. I was most struck by the fact that Chile is the country, perhaps together with New Zealand, that initiated a long and deep stream of education policy reforms since the 1980s . In the case of Chile, the reforms were imposed by a military regime and were very different from those adopted in New Zealand. The Chilean reforms were what is now often described as “neo-liberal”: decentralization of decision making, vouchers, standardized testing and accountability with league tables, teacher assessment or evaluation, privatization of school education services.

“The results of the reforms in Chile are: very low performance in PISA. At the last published PISA 2009 test, Chile was tied with Mexico as the lowest performing countries, among 34 members, in Math. Chile ranks about the same as Mexico but below the rest in Science and Reading. Chile has launched deep reforms; Mexico has not; and yet the two of them show very similar performance.

“The voucher system in Chile is very limited and only works partially for certain kinds of schools, i.e. private subsidized. There are three types of schools: municipal (for the poorest); subsidized private (for middle class); paying private (for the elites). Academic performance is highest in the last ones, which have no vouchers or public subsidy.

“With the new Chilean government, education is in the midst of deep institutional reforms: new agency for quality education with increasing power to supervise and rank schools, recurrent failing schools will be closed; a revision of the voucher system; the creation of a superintendent of education to oversee the use of resources; and a national council of education to set the national policies of education. The new government, in other words, is not abandoning the reforms imposed by the military regime, just fine-tuning them.

“So far, it is the same story for US, Mexico and many other systems: many reforms, few changes: or “much ado about nothing.’”

For another perspective on vouchers in international context, read Martin Carnoy here. This was published in 1996 but the lessons remain the same: Vouchers increase the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

This suggests the perverse genius of the corporate reform movement, led by right-wing think tanks, which tout vouchers as a way to “close the achievement gap” and to “save minority children from failing schools.”

How clever to market vouchers by promising to do what vouchers have never done and will never do. How clever to claim that the free-market, which produced our current income gap, will produce equity in schooling and equality of opportunity. The most astonishing aspect of this claim is the utter lack of evidence for it.