War of the Words
20/12/2012 1 comentario
A tart pun appeared on a protester’s sign along a Barcelona street last week: “Franco ha Werto.” The idea was that the former dictator General Francisco Franco, who died (“ha muerto”) in 1975, is being recast as Spain’s current education minister, José Ignacio Wert. Earlier this month, Wert proposed a draft law to reform the Spain’s education system; its overall thrust is to give central government greater control over education at the regional level. One provision would allow families that are disgruntled with Spanish-language instruction in public schools in regions that have their own official language to send their children to private institutions and claim a stipend to pay for that from regional government. (source: Jonathan Blitzer – NYTimes – 19/12/2012)
The measure sparked protests nationwide, especially in Catalonia. People there were still smarting from a recent snub: In October Wert said the government should españolizar, or “Hispanize,” Catalan schoolchildren. The remark had an ominous historical ring because of a long line of authoritarian crackdowns on Catalonia, from Philip V in the 18th century to Franco in the 20th. Now locals, citizens and politicians alike, are describing the Wert’s new education proposal as another act of persecution. One former parliamentarian tweeted: “Wert wants to do what Franco tried but failed to: destroy Catalan identity.” The result of all the outcry is a lot of heat but very little light. And yet implications of Wert’s proposal are grave. At more than 26 percent, according to El País, the dropout rate among young Spaniards is among the highest in Europe. Massive budget cuts to public education have exacerbated concerns about the quality of teaching and sinking student aptitude in math and science. Some technical measures in Wert’s proposal, to restructure school day and reconfigure pre-professional programs, were meant to wring more out of the current system. Whatever their putative merits, though, Wert has drowned them in polemic. And he is needlessly picking a fight in regions like Catalonia, where schools are performing at, or above, Spanish average. His proposal is studded with revanchist barbs. There’s the controversial provision giving parents recourse to private language instruction. But this hardly was priority; things were working fine, José Torreblanca Prieto, a former education minister, told me. Wert’s embrace of private schools as solution rankles at time when public schools are buckling under austerity. Other components of the proposal would reinforce role of religion in schools, both by reinstating religion as an elective and by extending state funding to private religious schools. “The transfer of the public money to private schools,” Joan Costa-I-Font, a senior lecturer in political economy at the London School of Economics, explained by email to me, “means shifting money to mostly Catholic schools that educate middle-class and affluent pupils hence halting main redistributive mechanisms designed to cut down social inequalities”.
In other words, Wert’s proposal is ideology cloaked as technocratic reform. Leaders of Wert’s Partido Popular (P.P.) in Galicia, another region, like Catalonia and Basque Country, with its own official language, defend the freedom of parents to choose their children’s language of instruction largely in capitulation to the P.P.’s right-wing base, which prefers Spanish over Galician instruction. In the spring, a regional court in Catalonia ruled in favor of the local families looking for alternatives when they find their children’s Spanish-language teaching to be wanting. But only a handful lodge such complaints, and Wert then took this limited court ruling as pretext for passing a sweeping national reform. P.P., which consolidated its majority in the national Parliament last year when voters disenchanted with the economy tossed out incumbent Socialists, paints itself as centrist and pragmatic on the economy. But its allegiances extend to the far right, including to old hard-liners with Francoist predilections for a strong centralized state and institutionalized religion. Language issue has long been a P.P. bugaboo, as have efforts to increase role of religion in schools. Now, against the backdrop of the economic crisis and the resultant spate of reforms in Madrid, age-old hang-ups have new cover: Wert ascribes his policies to hard times. But his proposal is nothing more than old dogmatism, the public deserves better. One only hopes that those opposed to his law will find a common language to speak up against it.