Striking Spanish teachers march against cutbacks

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Thousands of striking teachers, students and parents marched through the streets of Madrid Tuesday to protest against education spending cuts put in place by the regional government.

Grouped under flags announcing the names of their high schools, the protesters walked behind a large black and white banner that read: "No To Cuts! Education is not an expense, it is an investment."

The capital's regional government has increased the number of classroom teaching hours from 18 hours a week to 20 so as to cut back on temporary hiring.

Unions argue this will lead to poorer quality education as teachers will have less time to prepare classes and will be assigned to teach subjects they know nothing about.

They said 70-80 percent of the region's 21,000 high school teachers took part in Tuesday's strike, many brandishing placards as they rallied outside schools, which were still obliged to offer a skeleton service.

The Madrid regional government said 43 percent of the staff turned out for the strike.

"I have turned out to protest because this seems like a huge injustice to decide such brutal measures which will affect the future of Spain," said Raquel Portillo, 44, who came to the march with her two sons aged nine and 12.

Many demonstrators wore green T-shirts that read "Public Education From All, For All".

"We feel undervalued, it is an act of aggression against the dignity of our profession. Everyone must fight for public education because it is a guarantee of equality," said 43-year-old French teacher Emilia Leon.

Anger is growing in Spanish regions where cuts are hitting health and education.

Teacher strikes and demonstrations against spending cuts are planned in the coming days in most of Spain's powerful 17 regions, which are responsible for education and health care, including in Galicia and Navarra.

"National education has become the political authorities' target for economic austerity measures," said the head of the teachers' union ANPE, which claims no political affiliation.

The red ink running through the accounts of Spain's regional governments is a major concern for the markets, which fear it could compromise the central government's targets for cutting the annual public deficit.

The budget deficit for the 17 regions amounted to 1.2 percent of gross domestic product during the first half of the year -- nearly reaching the full-year target of 1.3 percent.

Those annual deficits are adding to the accumulated debt, which amounted to a record 133.172 billion euros as of June 30 -- equal to 12.4 percent of the country's total annual economic output.

Some are two years behind in paying their bills for suppliers of services and pharmaceutical products.

The Catalan government has announced a 10 percent cut in its 2011 budget, including a 6.5 percent reduction in health spending.

Catalan hospitals that also provide emergency services now have to close at night, hospital beds have been cut and operating rooms halt work for several hours to save money.

Health staff and patients in the region protest regularly against the measures.

"We can expect a hot autumn," warned Autonomous University of Madrid political science professor Fernando Vallespin.

"For the first time in two entire generations, the Spanish realise that their standard of living is falling."

Ahead of November 20 general elections, the cuts in regions provide a major political battlefield.

Ruling Socialist Party officials have openly criticised education and health cuts in the Madrid and Castile La-Mancha regions, both run by the conservative Popular Party, and in Catalonia, run by the conservative nationalist party, CiU.

© 2011 AFP

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