Similar Problems, Different Response: “We Are Public Education”

Thousands of people from all over Spain demonstrated Saturday October 22nd in Madrid against severe austerity measures affecting public education in several Spanish regions. The march on Madrid, which attracted more than 100,000 protesters – huge by Spanish standards – was jointly organized by national education unions and the national parents’ association, CEAPA. Taking part in the protest, a somewhat unprecedented coalition: educators, parents, and students.

The economy in Spain is in terrible shape. Parents and teachers don’t always have an ideal relationship, yet  Spaniards seem to have avoided the divisive and unproductive quarrels we often read about in the US education debate – e.g., adults versus children or teachers versus parents – in an attempt to prioritize long-term educational investment over short-term, budget-driven savings. This broad alliance is building consensus around the notion of “the education community." As the protest’s manifesto notes, such community is “society as a whole," which must unite to oppose drastic budget cuts in public education and attacks by political leaders on public school teachers.

The nationwide protest was triggered by a recent government decision that bans the temporary hiring of teachers as part of a plan to reduce government spending. In various parts of the country, teachers have already been laid off, class sizes and teaching hours have increased significantly, and teachers will have to teach subjects they are not specialized in. Many schools will have to reduce extra-curricular activities, remedial classes for struggling students and integration classes for the children of immigrants. This situation triggered a series of regional demonstrations across Spain throughout the months of September and October – including student demonstrations in defense of public education – with protesters arguing that education quality has been put at risk. National in scale, the march on Madrid sends a broader message, with the potential of immediate political impact.

Teachers, parents and students from all around Spain have joined together to complain that government is “making education pay for a crisis it didn’t cause." Their banners are explicit: “No to education cuts," “Education is not an expenditure, but an investment," “Defend public education, cut bankers” and “Privatization = Educastration."

In addition to protesting previous cuts in education funding, with warnings against extending them to additional regions, the demonstrators are also voicing their opposition to U.S.-style education “reforms” – plans to privatize parts of the school system, including facilitating the establishment of charter schools. While teachers are angry at budget cuts that amount to 80 million euro, the government has introduced a series of tax breaks worth about 90 million euros for parents who are able to send their children to private schools. Cutbacks in public education are being used to fund private schools and will result in a two-tier education system – see here.

So, this is a message to the government that is likely to resonate during the upcoming general elections. The message to politicians: “Don’t play politics with education."

Nevertheless, the unfortunate truth is that, no matter what government emerges from the upcoming elections, Spain’s leaders will have little room to maneuver in improving the reach or quality of public services. Yes, the country's economic prospects are quite uncertain.

Still, I take comfort in the fact that a large group of citizens are overcoming their differences and organizing themselves on behalf of what they see as a national priority. The quality of public education, they argue, should be one of Spain’s top concerns and must not be allowed to fall victim to the growing austerity club.

Given how many European nations share Spain’s economic problems, it was interesting to note how many of their teacher unions gave their support to the Madrid protesters, including teachers’ unions from the UK, France, Portugal, and Italy among others.

Susan Hopgood and Fred van Leeuwen, respectively the president and general Secretary of the unions’ international umbrella group, Education International, also sent support, issuing a statement urging all governments to “cease their attacks on our public education systems, on teachers and on the entire education community."

The Madrid manifesto, by defining the “education community” as “society as a whole” was able to take groups that, in the U.S. context, are seen to  have competing interests, and build a broad coalition around a shared “love for and defense of public education." This is not just about teaching jobs. And it's not just about austerity measures. The real issue is how the people of Spain choose to value education. Favoring private actors promotes a view of education as purchasable and saleable service whose quality depends on the fee one can afford to pay. Investing in public education reinforces a view of education as a social good -- something that exists for the betterment of the nation and all of its people, irrespective of their socioeconomic status.

We shall see what the movement accomplishes politically. Socially and ideologically, the Madrid march has a symbolic value: The protests are about Education with a capital E.

- Esther Quintero