Forty-five kindergarten children sit attentively in a cold classroom in a poor school on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile. Bundled in blue and white uniforms, they patiently wait on their teacher’s next instruction, a child occasionally moving across the small room to access materials in his personal cubby-hole.

In a neighborhood plagued with drugs and violence, the private voucher school is a sanctuary for the low-income children who reside there. For many, their home life is one full of neglect: out-of-work parents (if any), unsanitary living conditions, and a familiarity with the sounds of local drug dealers that should be reserved for the music of an ice cream delivery truck.

But despite the incalculable obstacles that lie before them, the San Joaquín School has provided them with hope. San Joaquín provides a high-quality education to the 100 percent low-income population of children it serves. The teachers are dedicated, the academic focus is rigorous, and structure is the cornerstone of the school’s routine.

The voucher school posts reading and math scores far above the national average. The school spends only about $150 per child per month, but it daily reinforces the truism that all children can learn and should be provided with the opportunity to transcend their poor surroundings.

It’s a jarring study in contrasts with many American schools, where spending exceeds $10,000 per child per year while achievement results languish.

While the San Joaquín School is one of the higher-performing schools in the country, Chile is working to improve outcomes for schools nationwide. Like the U.S., Chile is striving to increase academic achievement levels for all children while at the same time reducing achievement gaps between low- and upper-income students. In recent years, Chile has seen an increase in reading achievement for students and a slight narrowing of the achievement gap between low-income children and their more advantaged peers.

Moves to create greater transparency about school performance could have aided in the recent increases. The country now employs a “traffic light” system, classifying schools as either green, yellow, or red based on academic test results. The traffic light system is credited with providing parents with more information about where to enroll their children in school and provides some pressure on low-performing schools to improve academic outcomes.

The Chilean education system is divided into three classifications of schools:

  1. Municipal (public) schools, which, as in the United States, provide taxpayer-subsidized free public education to families across the country;
  2. Private voucher schools, which are private schools that receive a fixed government subsidy based on the number of children who attend (and lose money if a child decides to transfer to another school); and
  3. Private tuition schools, which receive no taxpayer subsidies and require parents to pay straightforward tuition like most private schools in the United States.

In Chile, school choice has played an integral part in the country’s efforts to improve its overall education system by providing more options for families and placing competitive pressure on the public school system to improve.

According to an April 2011 paper by the Chilean public policy foundation Libertad y Desarrollo:

According to the information from the [Ministry of Education], between 2000 and 2010, nearly 500,000 students migrated from the municipal [public] education [system]; 500 schools closed in that period, while, at the same time, approximately 2,000 private subsidized schools were created.

Like the U.S., Chile struggles with centralized bureaucracy in education (with nearly all educational decision-making authority concentrated in the hands of the Ministry of Education in Santiago). Similar to the paperwork burden handed down to local schools from Washington, growing bureaucracy from Santiago burdens local schools. A new “Shared Support Program,” for example, is duplicative of the country’s “Preferential School Subsidy Program,” similar to the American Title I grants for low-income schools.

The success of the San Joaquín School has come from dedicated teachers, a devoted principal, and a structured school environment that is missing from the home lives of many poor children in Santiago. Like successful low-income schools in the United States, it’s the dedication of local leaders who have a close understanding of the needs of local children.

While Chile’s ministry of education is intent on extending its reach into local schools (each administration has a hand in reworking the national curriculum, which all schools must adhere to, for example), there are lessons that can be applied to education reform in the United States: keep educational decision-making authority local, increase transparency of results, and above all, empower parents.