By Julia Symmes Cobb
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia on Friday reached a deal with public school teachers to end a 37-day strike that has kept millions of children out of classes, amid criticism the government has failed to keep its promise to improve public education after a peace deal with Marxist rebels.
Union members participating in the nationwide walkout held near-daily marches, often blocking busy roads in the capital Bogota to demand more funding for school maintenance, supplies, student meals and salaries.
President Juan Manuel Santos says he is focused on combating inequality and improving education now that a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an end of more than 52 years of war, is under way.
But educators said improvements are nowhere to be seen and their salaries, some as low as 1.8 million pesos per month (about $610), are not adequate compensation for work that requires extensive and expensive higher education.
"The government's priority was always to reach an agreement that recognizes the work of teachers and the indispensable role of education in the development of the country and, at the same time, be responsible with public finances," Education Minister Yaneth Ghia told reporters.
The deal, among other things, will improve salaries through progressive bonus payments and allow bigger union involvement in how money is spent on education, she said.
The powerful Colombian Federation of Education Workers (Fecode) union, which represents more than 350,000 teachers, agreed to the deal after meeting with Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas.
"The president said the money that went to the war would go to education but now there's no FARC, no guns and we don't see the funds," said high school teacher Jose Escobar, 36, earlier on Friday during a protest in Bogota's main square.
Places at his school, Colegio German Arciniegas in Bogota's poor Bosa neighborhood, are in such high demand that it has been impossible to implement the government's goal of full-day classes, Escobar said. Instead, 4,800 students in grades nine through 11 attend half-day, or six hours.
Friday's deal will push toward the aim of full-day study.
Santos has weathered a wave of strikes in recent weeks, reaching agreements to halt protests in the port city Buenaventura and a strike by public workers.
"If the government truly is working for peace, they need to start here," said Adriana Tunjo, a fifth-grade teacher in southern Bogota, who like other protesters decried problems which included electricity outages and sporadic provision of meals.
(Additional reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Helen Murphy, Bill Trott and Diane Craft)