Catholics in Spain are angry about a new education law that would downgrade religious teaching and restrict state funding for Catholic schools.
If the legislation is approved in the Senate by the end of December, it will take effect in March.
"The whole educational community, led by parents' associations, teachers, unions and all kinds of platforms favoring educational freedom are telling the government this law violates our constitutional and fundamental rights as families, by completely excluding us from choosing a school for our children," said Juan Carlos Corvera, president of Spain's Educatio Servanda foundation, which promotes Catholic education in Spain.
"Yet the government, aware of the law's liberty-killing effect, has tried everything to process it at full speed during a pandemic without listening to the educational community and without parliamentary consensus -- all with a totalitarian content," he told Catholic News Service.
The "Celaá Law," popularly named after Isabel Celaá, Spain's education and professional training minister, was introduced for final approval in the Senate after passing in the Madrid parliament's lower house, or Cortes. Under its provisions, students' grades in religion classes would not be listed on their transcripts; a citizenship course that includes gender equality and "affective-sexual education" would be part of the curriculum for students age 6 and over.
Children with disabilities currently attending special education schools, many Catholic-run, would be mainstreamed into state schools. It also requires private schools, most of which are Catholic-run and include a quarter of all Spanish pupils, to diversify intake and give better access to low-income families, removing public funds from those which opt out, such as by remaining single-sex.
Local governments would gain stronger representation on school councils and would no longer be permitted to offer public land for building private schools. The law would grant Spain's 17 regions greater control over school curricula and extends the use of Catalan, Basque and other minority languages in teaching.
In a Nov. 29 interview with La Voz de Galicia daily, Celaá said Spain's 2013 education law was now "retrograde and outdated" and needed correction to ensure "equity and excellence" in public schooling. Within two years, the new law would raise education spending from 4.3% to 5% of Spain's gross domestic product and would attempt to stem high drop-out rates, improve class sizes and teacher training.
But Spain's Catholic Alfa y Omega weekly reported Nov. 25 that a new Legal Commission for Educational Freedom, formed with church backing, was offering legal advice and preparing a 40-page critique of the law, citing its infringement of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments.
Protesters in cars rallied against the law Nov. 22 in central Madrid and other cities, while a movement of parents' groups and teacher unions said it had collected 1.8 million signatures on a petition against the legislation. Opponents of the legislation vowed to seek constitutional arbitration and repeal the reforms, insisting they curtail religious teaching and risk indoctrination.
Fran Otero, an editor at Alfa y Omega, told CNS the government had sufficient support to ensure final enactment of the law, which was unlikely to be delayed by constitutional and legal appeals.
"But the current state of emergency has hardly been a time to propose major changes without consensus or real participation," he said. "If it goes ahead, fewer people will be able to access Catholic education, while families wishing to place their children in schools which reflect their idea of the world will no longer have resources or freedom to do so."
Otero said the government's "idea of education is of something fully controlled by the state, leaving private schools as little more than subsidiaries." He said government officials say they have no wish to close Catholic schools, "but this law contains crucial nuances that will effectively restrict them until they drown and disappear."
Otero said the gradual elimination of Special Education Colleges would further restrict the Catholic presence in education, as well as the right of families to help determine their children's upbringing.
"As guarantor of education, the state has subsidized private schools -- if this system didn't exist, many families couldn't afford to send their children there," Otero said.
"Besides allowing parents to choose how their children are educated, according to their convictions, the system saves the state money, since public schools cost it twice as much (to fund). This merely underlines why this law is misconceived."
Francisco Jose del Castillo Lopez, secretary-general of the Madrid-based Independent Education Union, which defends private schools and freedom of choice, called the Celaá law "a very ideologically charged, interventionist law, which speaks poorly of the role education plays for our politicians."
He told CNS if the law is enacted: "We firmly believe it will take its toll on many private publicly funded schools -- if not immediately, then very soon. There are frequent allusions to the preponderance of state schools and plans for creating sufficient places in them to meet all schooling needs. This will limit, if not cancel, the freedom of families to choose the education they want for their children, also jeopardizing many jobs."
Trinitarian Father Pedro Huerta is general secretary of the Catholic schools federation, Escuelas Catolicas, whose nearly 2,600 schools employ more than 106,000 teachers and educate over 1.5 million students. He told the online Vida Nueva that much of the law remained ambiguous, generating "very different interpretations."
"The text has been imposed without discussion, or even expert consultations in parliament," he said. "We have a political class which is incapable of depoliticizing education, of turning it into an essential service to our country's future," he said, adding that, instead, education was "an instrument of control."
In a Nov. 20 statement, the Spanish bishops' conference said it regretted the legislation had been processed "at extremely accelerated rates" during the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing adequate input by parents and educators. It said the Education Ministry had not addressed its concerns, and it "understood and supported" those who had "mobilized to defend their rights."
Spain's Lay Forum, grouping Catholic movements and associations, also accused the government Nov. 25 of pushing through "major educational changes" without any social consensus.
"The family constitutes the first educating community, making it essential to ensure freedom for parents in educating their children," the forum said in a statement. "A new education law cannot be issued every time the government's political composition changes. We have to think about the future and about those who will inhabit it."