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Education cuts

Unions, teachers, and parents lash out at regions slimming down their budgets

The protests planned by parents and teachers ahead of the start of the upcoming academic year are not about pay and conditions, but rather to defend education in itself.

The government's planned spending cuts will have a profoundly negative impact on the quality of this country's education system. The first regional governments to announce cutbacks have been Madrid, Galicia, Castilla-La Mancha and Navarre. Some 2 billion euros is expected to be slashed from the country's overall education budget over the coming year, adding to the reductions in spending last year in salaries, grants, training, and extra-curricular activities.

Prime Minister Jose Zapatero is committed to a 15-billion-euro austerity package that includes cuts of between 5 and 15 percent in civil servant salaries, raising the retirement age from 65 to 67, and introducing a new labor law reform. The cuts in health care and education by the regional governments come on top of this. In some cases, such as in Catalonia, the cuts represent 10 percent of last year's budget.

Politicians of all stripes like to talk about education as a medium-to-long-term investment upon which nothing less than the future of the country depends. But when it comes to putting budgets together, particularly at times of crisis, they always seem to end up regarding the sector as just another spending issue, important, doubtless, but subject to the constraints of the economy, just like any other.

The cuts announced in the four regions mentioned above will not only mean less teaching staff working more hours, but the end of activities essential to teaching standards such as tuition and class programming.

The struggle to improve educational standards is not simply a matter for teachers, but society as a whole and particularly families. Thirty percent of students leave high school without a single qualification, and the number is still increasing.

This is not a problem that will be solved by cutting spending on education, but closing teacher training colleges or reducing the time teachers can spend with special needs students after school, will only make matters worse. More students will drop out of education next year, but the government and the main political parties that have backed the cuts will be content for having met what they see as their obligation.

Another question is whether those same politicians will still be able to talk about education as the motor that drives a country's progress without embarrassing themselves, knowing full well that their policies are having exactly the opposite effect.

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