Spain’s new education law hampered by lack of consensus

Congress on Thursday approved a bill that the political right has vowed to fight tooth and nail, in a replay of the discord triggered by seven earlier reforms

A protest against the government's education reform outside Congress on Thursday.
A protest against the government's education reform outside Congress on Thursday.Eduardo Parra (Europa Press)

Like all the ones that preceded it, the eighth education law in Spanish democratic history has secured congressional passage but failed to produce political consensus.

The Lomloe, popularly known as the “Celaá law” after Education Minister Isabel Celaá, was approved on Thursday inside a divided lower house of parliament with 177 votes in favor, 148 against and 17 abstentions. The bill is still pending review in the Senate.

New education law: what has changed

Measures to reduce school segregation. The law includes a raft of measures aimed at ensuring that students from low-income families are equally represented in public and concertada schools. Extracurricular activities that must be paid for will not be allowed within school hours and city councils will not be able to cede public land for the construction of education centers that are not public.

Limits on repeating a grade. In Spain, around 31% of 15-year-old students have repeated a grade, nearly double the average of other developed countries. Under the new law, a student will only be held back once in primary school and twice throughout the mandatory education system. The decision on whether a student must repeat a grade will be based on what is best for their academic progress and not depend directly on whether they have failed more than two subjects.

Gender equality. The Lomloe promotes gender equality as a transversal issue in all areas of study. Schools will be encouraged to highlight the contributions of women and men in areas where they are not typically represented.

Sustainable schools. The new law also promotes “environmental sustainability.” Regional governments must aim to reduce the environmental impact of education centers and create “safe paths” to allow students to walk to school.

The division ran largely along ideological lines. Lawmakers for the center-right Popular Party (PP) stood up and began chanting “Freedom! Freedom!” to signal their disapproval with the contents of the “sectarian” bill, described as “the biggest attack on education of our entire democratic history.” They were soon followed by members of the far-right Vox and a few from the liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens).

Joaquín Robles, of Vox, claimed that the sponsors of the new law “cheer at sexual irresponsibility and want to take away our children’s innocence.”

Meanwhile, the political left was rejoicing over the passage of a piece of legislation that it views

as “modern, equitable and inclusive.” The Lomloe was backed by the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos, the partners in Spain’s minority government, and by the smaller parties Catalan Republican Left (ERC), Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), Más País, Compromís and Nueva Canarias.

Unidas Podemos lawmaker Javier Sánchez Serna said that the new legislation aims to “end privileges that the right passes off as freedom” and that it will end “the elitist and backward model of the Lomce,” in reference to the education law approved in 2013.

The bill has been dubbed the “Celaá law” after Education Minister Isabel Celaá.
The bill has been dubbed the “Celaá law” after Education Minister Isabel Celaá.POOL

The mood was captured by the lawmaker with the fewest votes in Congress, Tomás Guitarte of Teruel Existe, a small political group created to draw attention to the problems of rural, depopulated parts of Spain. “We began work enthusiastically, thinking that this time it would be possible,” he said in opening remarks in Congress on Thursday. “But we ran up against the same old ideological polarization; against an inability to reach consensus that has now lasted through two generations; against the priority given to partisan agendas, against languages that divide instead of uniting and fallacious arguments that raise social barriers.”

Inés Sabanés, of the small leftist party Más País, lamented that “every time we debate education in Spain, we end up talking about languages and religion.” One of the most controversial aspects of the bill is the elimination of a passage stating that Castilian Spanish is the “vehicular language” of Spain. The political right sees this as a nod to Catalonia’s “linguistic immersion” model that uses Catalan as the primary language of instruction.

Children at the public school Reina Violant-Comas i Solà in Barcelona.
Children at the public school Reina Violant-Comas i Solà in Barcelona.(c)Carles Ribas

A long history of discord

The acrimonious scenes inside parliament on Thursday were nothing new: all previous education laws have been hotly contested, including the new law’s predecessor, the Lomce, better known as the “Wert law” after then-minister José Ignacio Wert of the PP. In 2013, the Lomce obtained four more votes in favor than the Lomloe did on Thursday, but the Lomce was only defended by the PP, which had an absolute majority at the time.

“It is not an exclusive thing to Spain, but it is a rather Spanish syndrome,” said Juan Manuel Moreno, an education specialist at the World Bank. “And it comes at a very high cost for the education sector. It does not help the sector make progress or solve its endemic, decades-long problems when you have this cycle in which laws are approved without agreement and with the opposition warning in Congress that ‘the first thing we’ll do when we reach power is to repeal...’ in this case the Lomloe.”

The new law, which will affect 8.2 million non-university students, will begin life with limited power, says Lucas Gortázar, who has analyzed this piece of legislation for the business school Esade. “Legislative changes take time to reach the reality of education centers, and they take a lot longer if the media buzz makes it hard to analyze and apply them.”

Resistance is expected from concertado schools, semi-private centers that receive state funding and many of which are run by Catholic groups that say the new law will curtail families’ freedom to choose the kind of education they want for their children. Around a quarter of Spain’s students attend these centers.

The PP said on Thursday that it will use its power in regional and local governments under its control to try to “limit the effects” of the Lomloe through the orders and decrees used to apply national legislation, sources in the party leadership told this newspaper.

The PP-run regional governments of Madrid, Castilla y León and Andalusia said they are considering their response. And Murcia went further, saying the region will analyze “all the legal options to apply specific counter-reforms to avoid implementing the Celaá law.”

Much ado about nothing

Antonio Cabrales, an economics professor at Carlos III University, believes that the legislative changes are not that significant, and that political parties are overreacting as they do with every education reform. “Many essential aspects remain the same, only the emphasis on some aspects has changed,” he said. “The Lomce was not revolutionary, either. Changes are more gradual than what is suggested by the approval of a new law.”

Cabrales notes that the issues leading to polarization are not, in fact, those purely related to education or learning. “They are identity issues: language, religion, and one might add political ideology, as in deciding who gets to run the schools, the private or the public sector.”

One of the positive things that Cabrales sees in the new legislation is mechanisms to prevent student segregation on social and economic grounds. Currently, concertado schools tend to enroll fewer students from low-income or immigrant families despite receiving public aid.

Why is it so difficult to reach an agreement on education in Spain? “Different ways of perceiving society and life come into play. This activates personal convictions and values within a debate that is not without its conflict of interests,” says former education minister Ángel Gabilondo, who served under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the PSOE. “It takes generosity and a lot of dialogue to look beyond one’s own position. But that is the path towards agreement.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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