In Spain, education and austerity at odds

MADRID -- Teachers have been on strike four times in the first five weeks of school as austerity measures force them to work more, or force them out of work entirely.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

MADRID -- With the Spanish elections approaching, teachers here have been on strike four times in the first five weeks of school. The teachers are protesting sweeping budget cuts as part of the newest Spanish austerity plan, which focuses on the regional governments.

In July, the Madrid Ministry of Education approved the increase of the teacher's work week from 18 to 20 in-class teaching hours. According to the teachers' union, this leads to the elimination of about 3,000 substitute teaching positions. The administration says not hiring these substitute teachers will save 80 million euros. As the Eurozone's fourth-largest economy, Spain aims to cut the public deficit, from more than nine percent in fiscal year 2010 to six percent this year.

"To me, the strike doesn't make sense," Mariano Camarol said, in his native Spanish. "If their pay was cut, I'd understand striking, but all they have to do is work a little more." Camarol has a 10-year-old son who attends a "concertado," which is a half public-half private Spanish school. Concertados have not been affected by the cuts.

Since the global economic downturn in 2008, educational spending has been a flashpoint on every continent. In the U.S., there is heated debate over how students should be instructed, how teachers should be evaluated and why the country's students still lag their global counterparts, despite comparably more funding per capita. Generally, veteran teachers -- not substitutes -- have come under fire.

In Spain, public expenditure on education varies within the nation's 17 autonomous communities. Despite a considerably higher income per capita, Madrid spends the least on education as a percentage of its overall budget.

In Madrid, there is a lot of confusion revolving around the actual responsibilities of the teachers. An average teacher in the Community of Madrid has a 38.5-hour work week, with 20 hours now dedicated to teaching, while the remainder is spent organizing, planning, and monitoring the students.

"The strike isn't about the two hours more," Eugenia Alcandara, an education inspector, said, also in Spanish. "The reason is the decision of the Ministry of Education. The teachers are ready to work the two hours," but not at the cost of others losing their jobs or having to work under poor conditions. SmartPlanet caught up with Alcandara as she was bringing three of her kids -- ages 3, 5, and 7 -- home from school.

The teachers' unions say that the strikes are not about the two extra hours. They say the budget cuts will only decrease the quality of education and prevent them from hiring new teachers.

The movement is called "marea verde," which refers to the "green tide" of teachers and students that are pouring onto the streets. A protest in early October saw about 10,000 people marching against the education budget cuts. Protesters were seen wearing green shirts and often giant pairs of scissors on their heads, while rattling noisemakers and playing an array of instruments. Madrid governor Esperanza Aguirre has this week filed an official complaint against the suspected untaxed sale of these green t-shirts.

Aguirre is a member of the People's Party, which controls the Community of Madrid. PP is widely predicted to be the winner of the November 20 national election. The teachers' unions have already scheduled three more strikes leading up to election day--one on October 20 and two in November.

Similar to the Arab Spring, social media platforms such as Facebook, Tuenti and Twitter are fueling discourse and debate in Spain. Twitter especially is filled with comments from the Tweeting organizers of the green movement, #mareaverde and #profesinespe, which translates to "professors without hope."

The movement continues to gain followers all around the Madrid Community.

Photo: EFE

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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