Thousands drive through Spanish streets to protest new education reform

Parents with children in state-subsidized ‘concertado’ schools say the rules will undermine their right to choose by granting too much power to the state

Protestas Ley Celaa
The Sunday protest against education reform on Madrid's Paseo de la Castellana.Santi Burgos

Thousands of people on Sunday protested across Spain against an education reform that is making its way through parliament and which they claim will curtail families’ right to choose their children’s education.

Sitting inside their vehicles to observe coronavirus social-distancing rules, the protesters waved orange flags and demanded the resignation of Education Minister Isabel Celaá, the sponsor of the Lomloe education law, popularly known as the “Celaá law.”

Around 5,000 vehicles took part in the Madrid protest, according to organizers. A similar number came out in Seville, in an estimate provided by the municipal police. In Málaga and Granada, authorities said there were more than a thousand cars at local protests. There were demonstrations in around 30 provinces, but none were organized in the regions of Catalonia, the Basque Country or the Valencia region.

A car in the Seville demonstration against education reform.
A car in the Seville demonstration against education reform. PACO PUENTES

The protests were called by Más Plurales, an umbrella group representing parents’ associations, unions, businesses and educators from concertado schools, which are state-subsidized centers that are often run by Catholic groups.

According to Más Plurales, a petition against the Celaá law has attracted 1.5 million digital signatures. There are around two million students enrolled in concertado schools across the country.

In Madrid, leading members of the conservative Popular Party (PP) joined the protest, including national party president Pablo Casado, Madrid regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso, and the mayor of the city of Madrid, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, all three of whom showed up inside Casado’s vehicle.

Casado said he will challenge the Lomloe before the Constitutional Court, and pledged that when the PP returns to power it will repeal this piece of legislation because “it is bad for national unity, and terrible for the education community. It is bad for the future of our children.”

In Seville, protesters drove to the regional assembly building, where they split up into two groups to avoid creating traffic jams. Demonstrators waved Spanish flags and signs reading “Common sense,” “Stop Celaá Law” and “Freedom.”

School segregation

Popular Party president Pablo Casado at the wheel of his car during the Madrid protest. With him is Madrid regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso, and Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida.
Popular Party president Pablo Casado at the wheel of his car during the Madrid protest. With him is Madrid regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso, and Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida.Eduardo Parra - Europa Press (Europa Press)

The Lomloe secured congressional approval last week with support from the center-left governing coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos, and additional backing by several regional parties. The bill, which is still pending review in the Senate, is being described by its sponsors as more inclusive than its predecessor, the 2013 Lomce. One of the new measures addresses school segregation in a bid to ensure that students from low-income families are equally represented in public and concertado schools.

The law seeks to send a number of disadvantaged students and those with special needs to concertado schools by introducing new admission criteria; it would also curtail the practice of monthly payments at these schools, and make religion a subject that does not count toward a student’s final grade.

The political right says this encroaches on families’ freedom to choose schools, and also criticizes the fact that the wording of the law has eliminated a passage citing Castilian Spanish as the primary language of instruction at schools, in what it sees as a nod to Catalan nationalists.

Failure to produce political consensus has been a hallmark of all of Spain’s attempts at education reform in a country where students regularly underperform in the PISA international assessment program.

Freedom of choice

On Sunday, on Madrid’s Paseo de la Castellana boulevard, 20-year-old Belén García, who is studying to be a teacher, was handing out flags with the slogan #Stopleycelaá. García, a student at the private Villanueva University, said she had joined the protest because the new law says that students with failing grades can only be held back twice at the most during the entire mandatory schooling period.

“The notion of letting students move on to the next grade despite having failed two subjects is going to create a society that doesn’t believe in making an effort,” she said.

Blanca Segas, a 36-year-old teacher at a state-subsidized school in the Madrid district of Arganzuela, said she was there to defend freedom of choice. “Being able to choose the school is a fundamental right. Imposing a single model on families is not tolerable,” she said. “Not in my case, where I’ve chosen a religious model, and not in the case of those who choose a secular model.”

“This demonstration should make the government think, after securing approval with bare-bones consensus and just one vote over the absolute majority,” said Madrid Mayor Martínez-Almeida at the protest. “Minister Celaá took her own daughters to concertado schools, but now she doesn’t want to let other families do the same. She should explain why.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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