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Spain's controversial educational reform: Will the Green Tide wash it away?

New government reforms aim to reduce Spain's dropout rate. But they are opposed by green-shirted protesters from the education sector, known as the Green Tide.

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Protesters and activists of the Green Tide movement gather on Wednesday at La Constitucion square in Malaga, Spain, to protest against government cuts and educational reforms.

Jon Nazca/Reuters

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The Spanish government approved Friday a broad educational reform emphasizing standardized tests combined with reduced spending that it says will reduce one of Europe’s highest secondary school dropout rates -- and decrease the number of students being held back each year.

“It’s one of the most important reforms” of the conservative Popular Party government," Education Minister José Ignacio Wert said during a press conference. A quarter of Spanish students drop out of school before graduating and 40 percent of students are held back, costing the state 2.5 billion euro ($3.2 billion) a year.

Most Spaniards are alarmed at the deteriorating state of Spain’s education system, which, coupled with 57 percent unemployment among those 25 years and younger, is considered here to be a long term economic disaster for Spain.

But many, including a majority of students, teachers, and parents, strongly oppose the education bill because they say it will only worsen, not improve education. Tens of thousands marched last week in more than 30 cities – the latest of several massive demonstrations against the government’s policies in education – to demand the withdrawal of the bill approved today.

Green Tide

The reform is being imposed by the government despite the opposition of all other political parties and semi-autonomous regional governments, and is sure to be approved by the PP-controlled parliament this fall in order to implement it in 2014’s school year.

In essence, it seeks to more closely monitor students through further standardized tests, to condition schools' funds based on success in decreasing dropout rates, and to more efficiently redirect students toward academic or technical careers. Critics say one of the effects of reforms is to discriminate against underprivileged students.

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The underlying problem, though, lies in the severe spending cuts, argues the rebellious education sector, now nicknamed the Green Tide for their ability to summon tens of thousands of green-shirted marchers.

Since 2009, Spain has trimmed more than 6.7 billion euros ($8.6 billion) from its education spending and expects more cuts into the future, decreasing investment from a high of 5 percent of the gross domestic product in 2010 to 4 percent of GDP by 2015.

The cuts are equivalent to around a 15 percent decrease in resources for education, even as student numbers have increased more than 5 percent –effectively translating into fewer teachers and more students per teacher.

Meanwhile, the reforms approved today will cost 400 million euros ($512 million) to implement over three years.

The European Union has long warned Spain against spending less in education. But the government has insisted the problem is not one of resources, and has pledged to reduce the current dropout rate to 15 percent by 2020, regardless of the cuts.

Ideological controversy

Additionally, many Spaniards are enraged over some of the provisions that are more ideological in nature, such as strengthening Catholic education in public schools and weakening the control of autonomous regional governments, particularly Catalonia, in public education.

The reforms favor the Catholic Church. They would both divert public funds to semi-private Catholic centers and gender-segregated schools, mostly run by the Catholic Church, and reinforce the importance of religion classes in public schools. Students would steered toward religion classes and those classes would help with scholarships and graduation. The reforms roll back a partial limitation on the academic weight of religion classes enacted in 2006.

The bill also mandates Spanish-language schooling for students who request it in regions like Catalonia, which use their own languages in public education. Most Catalonians interpret the reform as an indirect attempt at undermining the autonomy of the region as part of a broader clash with the central government over its intention to secede from Spain.

Catalonia will have to pay for private schools for students who request it. The government earmarked funds to pay for it, but also said it would charge Catalonia for it. The regional government of Catalonia immediately said they will not accept this reform and will fight it, although they didn’t say how.


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