A leading proponent of school choice in Chile, Bellolio stops by Harris to talk about his new role

Last year, when Jaime Bellolio, MPP’10, was campaigning for a seat in the Chilean Congress, he often brought his family along with him. One day a teacher at his son’s school asked him what his father did for a living. “He says hello to people,” the four-year-old replied.

“He was right!” Bellolio acknowledges with a smile. To get to know people in the populous District 30, to which he and his family moved when he decided to run for an open seat in 2012, Bellolio spent long hours talking to local councilmen, leaders of neighborhood associations, social activists, soccer fans and anyone else he could engage in conversation. “It was a lot of walking, a lot of talking, a lot of hearing,” he says. In order to gain voters’ trust that he would represent their interests, “I had to know them, and they had to know me.” 

The hard work paid off. On November 17, 2013, Bellolio was elected to a four-year term in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Chilean Congress. A rising star in the conservative Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI) party, he has not stopped putting in long hours as he pushes for reforms on the party’s key issues, which include education, health care, pensions and security. 

With typical workweeks maxing out at 90 hours, Bellolio says, time management remains a big challenge. But he recently carved out a few days for a homecoming trip to Chicago Harris. On October 27 he gave an insightful presentation on school choice and education reform in Chile for Anjali Adukia’s “Education in Developing Contexts” class. The following day he discussed broader issues as the first guest in the Latin American Matters student organization’s 2014–2015 Speaker Series.

Bellolio’s affiliation with Chicago Harris has opened a lot of doors in Chile, he says. It helped secure a teaching post at the prestigious Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where he lectured in microeconomics and public policy for three years after graduation. The diploma was also instrumental in earning him a leadership role at Fundación Jaime Guzman, a prominent think tank named after the late Chilean political leader who founded the UDI.

Bellolio recognizes that the voters in District 30 were not likely to be swayed by his academic credentials. “When you’re campaigning, people don’t care if you’re a graduate or not, or even if you have a title or not,” he explains. “It’s another kind of animal there. You have to do other things. You have to empathize with people.” 

In office, he continues to defend residents’ interests and help them secure government funding for local projects. A firm believer that politics and policy work best when they complement each other, Bellolio has emerged as a leading voice in the fierce national debate over how to fix Chile’s ailing education system.

Echoing his constituents’ doubts that President Michelle Bachelet’s proposal would improve the quality of the district’s schools, he didn’t simply oppose the bill. He joined the Education Committee and made a forceful, data-driven case for an alternative plan that would, among other things, preserve school choice and state subsidies for for-profit schools. On October 25, just before his visit to Chicago, Bellolio marched alongside hundreds of thousands of parents and students in a historic rally against the government’s proposed overhaul. 

Although the education reform bill passed the lower house in mid-October and is likely to be approved by Bachelet’s allies in the Senate majority coalition, Bellolio says he has been energized by the high number of residents in his district who have thanked him for speaking out on the issue. 

One of his top priorities for the remainder of his term is to build broad coalitions in pursuit of common goals. “I think it’s a good idea to have some policies that are approved by a big margin,” he says. “Politics should not be a zero-sum game.” Another, trickier priority is to “push the limits of the possible” by gaining political support for reforms that are not currently on the policy agenda. 

“The tools that I learned here have been a great help in politics because they gave me a framework,” Bellolio says. “If you’re doing a policy and it’s not helping—or, more dramatically, if it’s making it worse for the people you’re trying to help—then you have to change your policy. That’s pretty obvious, but to do a good policy analysis you have to collect the right data and you need to ask the relevant questions. Being here helped me to know how to do that.”