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Thousands protest in Portugal against cuts to private schools

Thousands of students, parents and teachers joined protests across Portugal on Friday to challenge plans by the cash-strapped Socialist government to slash spending on private schools.

Demonstrators formed human chains around dozens of private schools across the country, with over a thousand people taking part in protests in Coimbra, Portugal’s third-largest city, and over 1,200 gathering in Caldas da Rainha in the centre, Portuguese media reported.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s Socialist government announced in April it would stop funding classes at private schools that have partnership contracts with the state whenever an alternative can be found for students in public schools.

“It is essential that we concentrate resources on the defence and funding of public schools, which are the schools that belong to everyone and that guarantee equal opportunities,” Costa said in the northern city of Valango.

The government’s move will lead to the closure of 46 of the 81 private schools that have a partnership with the state and receive public funding, which will affect more than 20,000 students and lead to over 4,000 job losses, according to Portugal’s association of private schools AEEP.

“This is not a financial issue, it is an ideological issue,” the head of the association said Wednesday.

Private schools get just 150 million euros ($170 million) out of the education ministry’s total annual budget of 5.5 billion euros, he added.

Last year, Portugal’s budget deficit came in at 4.3 percent of national output, well above the European Union’s 3.0-percent limit.

A left-wing government came to power at the end of last year, and in February lawmakers approved a 2016 budget that pledges to reverse unpopular austerity measures but is seen as high risk by critics and investors, with Lisbon under EU pressure to stay on a disciplined path.