Abstract The article examines education policy in Chile after the return to democracy in 1990 from an equity perspective. Since then, policies have aimed for continuity, coherence and complementarity with the aim of furthering national development, promoting social mobility, and equitable access to quality education at all levels. However, Chile faces the challenge of implementing equity-oriented policies within the legal confines of an education system constructed under the neoliberal model which was introduced by the military government (1973–1990). This has resulted in tensions between policy and practice, which have constrained the role of the state in a highly marketised system in its efforts to distribute quality education more equitably.

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