By Teresa Larraz Mora
MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish teachers went on strike on Tuesday to protest against cuts in education spending that unions say will put 100,000 substitute teachers out of work but that the government says are needed to tackle the euro zone debt crisis.
The central government has ordered Spain's 17 autonomous regions to cut 3 billion euros ($4 billion) from education spending this year, as part of a tough program to trim the public deficit to an EU-agreed level of 5.3 percent of gross domestic product.
Spain's economy is contracting for the second time since late 2009 and four years of stagnation and recession have pushed unemployment above 24 percent, the highest rate in the European Union.
The recession has been aggravated by deep austerity measures taken by the government as it tries to reassure investors of its fiscal health. Spain's borrowing costs recently rose to euro-era highs on concerns it cannot avoid an Ireland-style bailout because of its troubled banks.
Tuesday's strike affected all levels of public education, from kindergarten to university. Teachers at some private schools that receive state subsidies were also on strike.
Unions called the strike a success and said 80 percent of teachers took part, while the education ministry said it was barely 20 percent.
Tens of thousands of people attended marches in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities. Many wore green T-shirts which have become the uniform of those who oppose the centre-right government's cuts.
"BANKS VS EDUCATION"
"This year we have 30 teachers less and it is mainly because they have withdrawn courses and taken away supply teachers, we have lost the classrooms that allowed immigrants to learn the language," said Pilar Molto from La Paloma high school in Madrid, who has been teaching for 34 years.
Spain's high school graduation rate is 74 percent, compared with an 85 percent average in the European Union, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Critics complain that the government is spending billions of euros to rescue banks that got into trouble after the property market crashed, while it cuts spending on schools and hospitals.
The autonomous regions, many of which overspent on huge infrastructure projects during the boom years from the late 90s to 2008, are also expected to raise fees for state universities to meet their budget-trimming goals.
Teachers have held several walkouts and mass protests in recent months against measures such as increasing their weekly teaching hours and cutting class preparation time, which they said would damage the quality of secondary education.
The central government's education reform also raises the average number of students in each class by 20 percent.
"Quality public education is in danger of dying," said Voro Benavent, spokesman for the Teaching Workers Union, or STE.
"They are sacrificing our youths' learning because of the crisis."
(Additional reporting by Reuters TV and Feliciano Tisera; Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Julien Toyer and Andrew Roche)