Search for Cuts Puts Portugal's Schools on Chopping Block

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LISBON -- Miguel Reis was one of the vulnerable ones. Like most of the 15,000 or so public school teachers laid off in Portugal over the last two years, he worked on a short-term contract. That made him an easy target when it came to government cost cutting. Six months ago, he lost his job.

Angry and unemployed, he joined a protest group -- with a name too profane to print -- aimed directly at the trio of international lenders that bailed out Portugal's government with about $100 billion two years ago. He now blames them for Portugal's troubles, saying the onerous cuts needed to repay the money threaten to forfeit the welfare of future generations, particularly when it comes to education.

"The I.M.F. and the rest of the troika don't care about the well-being of Portuguese people, but only about financial markets and getting their money back," said Mr. Reis, 34, who taught philosophy to high school students. He was speaking about the International Monetary Fund, along with the European Central Bank and the European Commission.

In Portugal and other nations in Europe, the battle lines are thickening around just how many more cuts to social benefits people will take, as their economies continue to shrink and social imbalances intensify. In a watershed ruling this month, Portugal's highest court struck down some of the austerity measures included in the government's initial 2013 budget, saying they discriminated against civil servants and retirees who had been singled out for salary and pension reductions.

The court ruling and continuing budgetary difficulties have left Portugal's government -- once held up as a model of the austerity approach -- with a dwindling set of options if it is to balance its books. If the government cannot cut civil servants' benefits, as the court ruled, then it will have to cut deeper in the places where it can.

That has placed Portugal's education system, which is already one of the weakest in Europe, squarely on the chopping block, intensifying calls by Mr. Reis and others to draw the line. In recent months hundreds of thousands of Portuguese have taken to the streets in protest to defend their social benefits.

But the government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho may have nowhere else to turn. Last week, it announced new spending cuts worth about $1 billion, or 0.5 percent of gross domestic product, as part of a revised 2013 budget. While not specifying where the cuts would come from, Luis Sarmento, the budget secretary, warned that they would "place public services under great pressure."

When it comes to education, already last year the government cut spending to about $8.7 billion -- back to the level of 2001 -- and down from a peak of about $11.2 billion in 2010.

Mr. Reis and other teachers argue that a new round of cuts threatens not only the education but also the future employability and competitiveness of an entire generation.

About 63 percent of Portugal's adult population has not completed high school.

With attention and spending, Portugal managed to reduce a dropout rate that was the worst in the European Union, to about 21 percent in 2011 from nearly 39 percent in 2005, according to a recent report from Eurostat, the European Union's statistics office.

"All that austerity is doing is impoverishing and threatening an education system that was finally going in the right direction," Mr. Reis said.

Still, an I.M.F. report issued in January concluded that "Portugal's education system remained overstaffed and relatively inefficient by international standards."

It suggested "making the education system more flexible and limiting the state's role as a supplier of education services" by eliminating 50,000 to 60,000 jobs.

Those steps -- what the I.M.F. called "a mildly ambitious education sector reform" -- set off an uproar among Portuguese teachers.

"Our system isn't yet efficient, but we come from a terrible dictatorship and we've clearly been improving recently," said Ana Maria Bettencourt, president of Portugal's national education council.

"The I.M.F. documentation is full of errors," she said. "The most fundamental mistake is to think that we can somehow cut more the financing of education, when education and professional training are the only way to fight unemployment."

But the I.M.F. singled out public school teachers as a privileged group "within society in general and within the Civil Service in particular," for having limited schedules and salaries that had been rising until 2010, well into the world financial crisis. Teacher compensation accounts for 70 percent of Portugal's total education spending.

Part of the problem, Ms. Bettencourt and other education specialists acknowledge, is that Portugal's recent cost-cutting efforts have had to circumvent the legal protections surrounding the public sector -- something that the court decision underscored -- including lifetime job guarantees for state employees on a fixed contract.

As a result, most of the teachers that have been laid off were recently qualified ones hired on yearly renewable contracts, like Mr. Reis, who had taught since 2009. "You will now struggle to find a teacher younger than 40 in Portugal," said João Jaime Pires, 57, the director of Camões high school, one of the most prestigious schools in Lisbon, whose alumni include José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission. "We spent a lot of money on training a new generation of teachers, only to send them now straight into unemployment."

Camões fell victim to the government's decision to abort a plan by the previous Socialist administration to renovate 320 schools across the country. The school building, which at a century is the oldest in Lisbon, had been in line for a $23 million overhaul, including seismic reinforcements.

Mr. Passos Coelho's government also scrapped a program to offer a laptop to every child entering primary school. It has reduced the number of schools, shrunk the curriculum and shortened school hours. Parents and volunteers have been helping with school maintenance to offset spending cuts.

At the Amadora high school on the outskirts of Lisbon, the children repainted the main stairway and other decaying parts of the building themselves, in a colorful, Mondrian-inspired grid.

"The austerity reforms mean that education has become soulless and only about financial numbers rather than people," said Inez Marques, a union representative and teacher at the Amadora school. Ms. Marques said she planned to take early retirement next year "out of fear that the future will get even worse."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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