Spain: Right blasts education reform as threat to ‘freedom’, ‘pluralism’

Protest against the Celaá law in Spain.

The Spanish congress chamber shook, as scores of deputies pounded their desks and chanted “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” on November 19.

Were these the MPs from Catalonia, Euskadi (the Spanish Basque Country) and Galicia, invoking the right of their nations to the self-determination denied them by the Spanish state?

Not quite. The protest against the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos (UP) coalition government was the work of rightist MPs from the People’s Party (PP), the far-right Vox and the neoliberal Citizens. They were mounting a show of outrage against the passing, by 177 votes to 150, of the new education law (LOMLOE).

Familiarly known as the Celaá law — after PSOE education minister Isabel Celaá — the legislation was the target of protest car cavalcades in up to 50 cities and towns in 30 of the Spanish state’s 50 provinces on November 22.

Organisers claimed that 10,000 carloads of protesters came out in Madrid (police said 5000) and 5000 in Seville.

The actions were the work of the “More Plural Platform”, made up of 21 organisations, including Catholic education and parents’ associations, unions covering teachers in private and charter schools (private schools contracted to teach the public school syllabus), and various entities espousing “freedom of choice”.

More Plural’s petition against the Celaá law has already gathered 1.8 million signatures.

The charges

According to the platform, LOMLOE will:

• Restrict the right of parents to send their children to the school of their choice;

• Curtail the teaching of religion (even in religious schools) by making it an optional subject;

• Indoctrinate pupils through a compulsory subject called “Education for Citizenship”;

• Create “political commissars” on school boards by adding a local council representative to them;

• Subvert the rights of parents on the pretext of defending the rights of the child;

• Open the door to the compulsory desegregation of single-sex schools, and;

• Lead to the forced incorporation of pupils from special needs schools into the ordinary system.

As if all that were not enough, after negotiations with the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), Celaá further enraged the right by agreeing to remove reference to Castilian (Spanish) as the “working language” of education in the Spanish state.

This ended a contradiction between the previous law of PP education minister José Ignacio Wert (notorious for his ambition to “Hispanify the Catalans”) and the Catalan education system, with Catalan as its language of instruction.

The agreement returns the situation to that prevailing before Wert’s law (LOMCE), with no specification of a preferred language for education. Universities minister Manuel Castells said on November 24 that Wert’s law had simply served to “poison social harmony in a situation where none of these problems had existed”.

However, for the PP, returning to the situation pre-Wert was, in the words of its education spokesperson Sandra Moneo, “a genuine outrage that damages the most basic principles of rights and freedoms enshrined in our Magna Carta”.

With the PP now locked in opposition mode, the atmosphere in the congress and at the protests recalled the early days of the 2004-11 PSOE government of José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero: it adopted such abominations to the Spanish right as homosexual marriage and a new Catalan statute of autonomy.

Now the right’s institutions are once again on a war footing. The three dailies of the Madrid media “cavern” (ABC, La Razón and El Mundo) and other right-wing outlets have been carrying “exposures” — lies — about how the Celaá law will:

• Automatically pass students on to the next level irrespective of their efforts and exam results;

• Asphyxiate charter schools by imposing restrictions on their access to funding and public assets;

• See children banned from speaking Spanish in the playgrounds of schools in Catalonia; and

• Shut down special needs schools for children.

The PP, Vox and Citizens will appeal the new law to the Constitutional Court and, if necessary, to European-level courts. At the same time, according to PP leader Pablo Casado, “the autonomous communities [states] where the PP governs will legislate to make sure that this law doesn’t undermine the freedom of families and to prevent harm to educational standards, in public education too.”

What the law really says

It might seem that a law coming under such intensive fire from the PP, Vox and Citizens must have some good features. However, the right’s bluster and blackmail is misleading as to the nature of LOMLOE. Irrespective of improvement compared with LOMCE, the Celaá law fails to tackle Spain’s entrenched educational problems.

These are high drop-out rates, overcrowded classes, poor teacher training, unmotivated teaching staff, class-segregated schooling serving the special interests of the Catholic Church and other private providers, and a growing infiltration of educational services by giants like Google and Amazon.

That is, the law offers a modest touching-up of some of the system’s worst aspects yet hardly begins to address the challenge of modernising education in the Spanish state. Most importantly, it is silent on whether public education should become predominant.

Eloquent confirmation is the fact that the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which as governing party in Euskadi, presides over an education system with the highest proportion of private provision in the Spanish state (half-and-half between Catholic and public schools), voted for a law that the all-Spanish right screams is aimed at destroying choice and religious education.

Take the new law’s policy towards privately run charter schools, which in the 1980s were envisaged as unavoidable back-up to a still-developing public education system. They will no longer be able to get free access to public assets like land, nor will they be free to pressure parents to pay de facto fees disguised as “voluntary contributions” to their children’s education. Nor will single-sex charter schools receive public funding.

In addition, parents will now not be able to choose a charter school for their children and expect that the state will automatically fund their places. That mechanism, introduced in Wert’s LOMCE, simply locked in rising funding for charter schools at the expense of the public sector: while total spending on education has still to recover to the levels it reached before the 2011-14 European economic crisis, the portion going to the private providers has just kept growing.

The goal of the Celaá law’s measures is to try to ensure that charter schools gradually cease to be the elite centres of education that only better-off families can afford, while poorer, especially migrant, families are “stuck” with their underfunded local public school. However, will these measures achieve that end? Is the idea that charter and public schools will coexist forever?

Another example regards the right’s slanderous claim that special needs schools will be closed. LOMLOE is trying to address the need, identified by educationalists and psychologists, for children with special needs to be part of the ordinary student body and with their needs met in that context.

Will the funding for such a change be available when Spain presently spends 4.3% of GDP on education and the Celaá law aims to raise this to 5%, while the European average is 6%?

What treatments?

Another aspect of the new law that has drawn the ire of the right is its restriction on students repeating years, to be allowed only once in primary school and twice during the entire period of compulsory education.

Spain has a truly serious problem of forced repeating of school years, which many studies have shown damages students’ self-esteem and learning capacity. In 2018, under its archaic system of pass-or-repeat examination, 28.7% of students repeated a year (more than double the OECD average) while the school drop-out rate was an appalling 17%.

For the right, relaxing this Dickensian pass-or-be-doomed regime amounts to “rewarding lack of effort”. Yet the new law, while recognising the seriousness of the problem, doesn’t seriously address underlying causes or explore answers.

Spokesperson for Basque education union Steilas Ana Pérez said this is because “the LOMCE was a retrograde law which the educational community rejected, while the LOMLOE modifies its most controversial points. However, these two recent laws showed such little concern for pedagogy that they didn’t involve educational professionals in their drafting, only political representatives.”

Federated Associations of Students’ Families of Catalonia spokesperson Lidón Gasull said: “A lot of noise has been generated about this law, but the autonomous communities will continue to have all the power [over education], and this is not a revolutionary law that requires great changes from them. The changes are aesthetic, without committing clearly to public education.”

In the fights with the right during the early years of the Zapatero government, there were clear gains to defend, such as same sex marriage. This facilitated mobilisation against the campaigns and manoeuvres of the right.

By contrast, whatever gains there might be in the Celaá law will be some time coming. This will only spur the right and far-right champions of the private and charter school lobby to keep stoking a campaign that will be less and less about education and more and more about its own “freedoms”. According to of the Euskadi branch of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), the right's agenda is to extend private education with public funds, impose the Catholic faith in the classroom, segregate on the basis of class and gender and marginalise the non-Spanish languages of the state.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent.]