Public education in Colombia will be free in 2012 as a government reform takes effect, benefitting 8.6 million students under 17 years old, Education Minister Maria Fernanda Campo said Wednesday. \"Due to a decision by the national government, the Education Ministry announces that starting next year, the official Colombian education system will be totally free of charge from grade zero through grade 11,\" Campo told a local radio station in an interview. The costs will be totally covered by the state, and the 15 billion Colombian pesos (7.7 million U.S. dollars) will come from the national budget, Campo said. \"Next year\'s investment will go to all the 94 municipalities which administer educational services in a decentralized way,\" she said. Describing the improvement in Colombian education as \"extraordinary,\" Campo said this is a major step toward achieving equality in the country as there are now \"no excuses\" for parents to keep their children from going to school. The reform is part of a proposal promoted by President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office in August 2010, and also part of Colombia\'s plans to reduce the country\'s illiteracy rate.