Teachers strike across Spain, protesting cuts

MADRID Tue May 22, 2012 11:07am BST

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MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish teachers went on strike on Tuesday to protest against cuts in education spending that labour unions say will put 100,000 substitute teachers out of work but that the government says are needed to tackle the euro zone debt crisis.

The central government has ordered Spain's 17 autonomous regions to cut 3 billion euros (2 billion pounds) from education spending this year as part of a tough programme to trim the public deficit to an EU-agreed level of 5.3 percent of gross domestic product.

Spain's economy is contracting for the second time since late 2009 and four years of stagnation and recession have pushed unemployment above 24 percent, the highest rate in the European Union.

The recession has been aggravated by deep austerity measures taken by the government as it tries to reassure investors of its fiscal health. Spain's borrowing costs recently rose to euro-era highs on concerns it cannot avoid an Ireland-style bailout because of its troubled banks.

Tuesday's strike affected all levels of public education, from kindergarten to university. Teachers at some private schools that receive state subsidies were also on strike.

"This strike is necessary because we have to tell everyone what it means to cut spending in a country where education is not as good as in other countries," said Begonia Sanchez, a long-time school teacher who now runs an educational centre.

Sanchez said she would attend an evening protest march in Madrid. Similar demonstrations are planned in cities throughout the country on Tuesday night.

Spain's high school graduation rate, the percentage of students who complete secondary education, is 74 percent compared with an 85 percent average in the European Union, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Critics say the government is spending billions of euros to rescue banks that got into trouble after the property market crashed, while it cuts spending on schools and hospitals.

The autonomous regions, many of which overspent on huge infrastructure projects during the boom years from the late '90s to 2008, are also expected to raise fees for state universities to meet their budget-trimming goals.

The central government's education reform also raises the average number of students in each class by 20 percent.

In September and October teachers held several walkouts and mass protests against measures such as increasing their weekly teaching hours and cutting class preparation time to save money, which they said would damage the quality of secondary education.

"Quality public education is in danger of dying," said Voro Benavent, spokesman for the Teaching Workers Union, or STE. "They are sacrificing our youths' learning because of the crisis."

(Additional reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Tim Pearce)

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