Education Is Key in Spanish Election

11/11/2011 01:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

Education is, with the economic crisis, one of the central issues of the campaign in Spain. It is the first time that the electoral debate focuses so clearly on the educational model proposed by each of the parties with an option to form a government. The center-left wing party PSOE, currently in office, advocates for a predominantly public educational model. Surveys show that the conservative party PP, inclined towards private education, will win.

The crisis will force the upcoming government to cut public spending to control the debt. The question is where the cuts will be made. So far the debate on education had focused on the content of the subjects taught. The discussion is now focused on the financing of education.

The experience in all the regions currently ruled by the conservative PP -- 14 out of the total 17 in Spain -- tells that they have cut spending on education and have promoted policies encouraging private education. The region of Madrid, governed by PP, has cut spending on education this year. They have hired 3,000 teachers fewer in state schools, which will save, according to the regional government, 80 million Euros. But also, the PP administration provides tax relief for families with children enrolled in private schools, which will cost about 90 million euros. The regional government, nonetheless, has denied having made cuts in education.

Many think that what is happening in Madrid predicts what will happen in the rest of Spain if PP gets power in the national government. According to the Ministry of Education, Madrid is the only Spanish region with more private schools (50.7%) than state schools (49.3%), although 54% of students go to state schools.

The PSOE candidate has repeatedly said in public meetings and media interventions that he is concerned about the privatization of education as he believes it does not guarantee equality of opportunities. Among other accusations, the PSOE leader assures that private schools reject immigrant students. Despite PP claims of his lying, statistics confirm foreign students have increased in state schools by 2%, while they have declined by 3.1% in private ones.

At PSOE they insist that PP has a hidden agenda that includes the intention to cut the budget for state education and health. This can be interpreted as a first step towards the privatization of education, something that PP denies. At PSOE, however, they promise to increase spending on public education, which would be financed, among other measures, by a special tax on big fortunes.

Spain is the European country with the second highest percentage of private schools (33%), surpassed only by Belgium (54%). In fact in 2011 the number of private schools increased by 3.5%, accounting for 1.5% more than the public. The number of students, however, has increased more in state schools rather than the private. The crisis makes free education the most viable option for battered family economies. Currently, 20% of the Spanish population is unemployed and an entire generation of young people receive salaries of barely 1000 Euros. The fact that there are so many private schools must be understood from a regional point of view, as education is handled by the regional governments, not the national.

The current education policies in the regions ruled by the conservatives (PP) show their intention of reducing spending on education. State school teachers in regions such as Galicia, Castille La Mancha and Madrid, have rallied against the cuts. The opinion polls show that almost 95% of Spaniards think that politicians should have had a better insight on how to control tax evasion and eliminating wasteful spending instead of making cuts in health, education and social assistance. Even 58% of the population was in favor to raise taxes on alcohol and cigarettes to fund education and health. PSOE proposals are headed in this direction. We will have to await the results of the November 20 election to see what educational model is finally introduced in Spain.