Fri, Oct 20, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Thousands protest school reforms in Chile


Thousands of high school students threw rocks and clashed with police in a one-day strike that organizers called a "warning" to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to speed up promised reforms closing a wide educational gap between rich and poor regions.

Police used water cannons to disperse about 2,000 students who took to the streets on Wednesday in the capital and other cities. Deputy Interior Minister Felipe Harboe said 291 students were arrested -- 237 in Santiago -- though most were released after police confirmed their identities.

The students marched toward an education ministry office in Santiago but were repeatedly blocked by police. The protesters fought running battles with the officers, throwing rocks that damaged several vehicles.

"These marches are a warning to the government," said Max Mellado, one of the leaders of the movement.

The nationwide strike appeared to have ample support, but the protests were smaller and less organized than similar demonstrations in May and June that shook Bachelet's leftist government.

Those protests, joined by up to 700,000 students, ended only after Bachelet agreed to meet most of the students' demands, including eliminating a fee for a college entry exam for 167,000 students and providing school meals to 200,000.

Bachelet also appointed an advisory panel with 72 members, including students, to review the education law created by former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The law transferred responsibility for education to municipalities, which critics say produces a deep gap in funding and education quality between rich and poor parts of the country.

Students have grown impatient with what they consider slow progress toward changing the law. The panel "is good for nothing," Mellado said.

Bachelet was in Germany on an official visit on Wednesday, but Education Minister Yasna Provoste said the latest protests are unjustified since the government has done virtually everything it promised the students.

The students also demanded public apologies from authorities after police forcibly removed students who had taken over several schools in Santiago as part of their renewed protest movement.

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