For decades, Chile has been at the forefront of education reform in Latin America. The major international rankings conducted over the past decade have shown that, while Chile has some work to do to catch up with the developed world, it is the undisputed leader in Latin America.

In the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, Chile scored an average 439 in reading, math, and science – below the OECD average of 497, but still the best in the region by a fair margin. Chile’s performance has also been improving at a rapid clip: the country’s PISA scores improved between 2009 and 2012 at a faster rate than the OECD average. Dropout rates have declined, with 83 percent of current students expected to complete a full secondary education. That compares with the 56 percent of Chileans aged 55-64 who completed secondary.

When it comes to higher education, as well, Chile has seen expanded access. Over 29 percent have completed some form of advanced degree – just below the OECD average of 32 percent. And in the younger cohort, between the ages of 25 and 34 years old, that number climbs to over 41 percent – above the OECD average. Nearly 70 percent of these are the first in their family to go to college.

At the same time, there are clearly still challenges. Chile has the most unequal income distribution in the OECD, and socio-economic disadvantages are reproduced in the education system, rather than countered by it. By the time students reach ten years old, their school performance already diverges sharply based on household income. Less than half of children receive any pre-school, which affects their performance for the rest of their educational careers.

To be sure, this is a debate that Chile truly needs to have, as does the region as a whole. How can Latin American countries, given budget constraints, meet the twin goals of creating a world-class education system while also reducing inequality? The fact that in recent months the country has thrown itself into this discussion, from the student marches to the halls of Congress, is a welcome development- it shows that Chilean society is in a constant search for improvement.

However, the debate as currently unfolding under President Michelle Bachelet’s recently elected government is sending mixed messages: that all K-12 schools should be both public and free; that the higher education sector, which currently doesn’t allow for profit institutions, should be free for all; that selection should not take place at the school level. To pay for all this, the government is proposing a tax reform that will raise corporate rates and close loopholes, which some estimate will raise around $8 billion in revenue. 

However, access in Chile is already very good; a much more urgent issue is the need to raise quality, especially in schools attended by low income pupils. But measures to improve quality are largely missing from the current debate.

But the administration’s rhetoric suggests, instead, that they seek to revamp the whole system – despite its fast progress in terms of both access and quality. This would seem to run the risk of disrupting the parts of the system that do work while leaving the most pressing issues unaddressed.

Lacking, for instance, are specific proposals for how to change the structurally underserved nature of Chile’s poor. Evidence has long shown that early childhood interventions produce cascading positive effects that continue paying off throughout a student’s academic and adult career. Targeted policies to improve preschool, parental involvement and better employment opportunities for low income workers with children may do more good than altering the way the whole system is funded.

While there is a consensus that aspects of the higher ed system need better regulations and especially better enforcement, there is no discussion about how to do that while still retaining the advantages that private and for-profit institutions can bring. It is also far from clear how mandating free higher education will raise the quality of the country’s universities. And how the government will afford the long term costs? Chile’s system now counts 63 universities getting little to no government tuition funding.

Indeed, Chile’s K-12 system has been a model for the rest of the region precisely because it offers a diversity of options. These include free public schools, private non profits and for profits, and the subvencionadas, which are funded through subsidized tuitions. There is little evidence that one of these types inherently delivers better quality than another and the combination of alternatives, competition, and annual evaluations gives parents more and better options.

As Chilean educator and entrepreneur Eugenio Severin argues: “Between a total reform and the status quo, Chile will probably – as is its tradition – follow a middle road defined by gradualism and moderation.” The key will be, according to Severin, to “introduce fundamental reforms that reinforce Chile’s successes while also improving equality and educational quality.”