By DEBORA REY
The Associated Press
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 9:46 PM
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Thousands of young Argentines marched to the presidential palace on Thursday to protest the quality of public education, joining a student rebellion that accuses politicians of neglecting schools and universities that were once the envy of Latin America.
High schoolers have occupied about 30 public schools in Buenos Aires to protest their deteriorating conditions. The takeovers later spread to public universities, with students occupying a half dozen, this week, teachers joined the rebellion, putting 700,000 students out of school.
Students carrying a giant model of a pencil on their shoulders like a coffin and crosses symbolizing the death of public education on Thursday marched from Argentina's Congress to the presidential palace. They cite abysmal conditions in schools, including a lack of heating gas, poor electrical systems, leaky ceilings and broken windows, among other problems.
"For a long time, years, decades, a policy of cutting funding to public education has been carried out and this policy has reached such an extreme that the conditions needed to study almost do not exist," said Itai Hagman, president of the Buenos Aires University Federation.
Early in the 20th century, Argentina had a public education system considered a model for Latin America that assured most citizens access to free schooling. But
that system came under fire during Argentina's dictatorship and was later subjected to financing cuts under market-oriented democratic governments.
Thursday's march coincided with the 34th anniversary of the "Night of the Pencils" remembering a group of high school students who were abducted and killed during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.
The protesters' ire is directed at conservative Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, who handles high school financing, and center-left President Cristina Fernandez, whose government administers public universities.
"Our recent governments have not paid attention to public education. We want that to change," said Agustina Scattolini, 20, who is one of the students occupying a Buenos Aires high school for almost two weeks.
Buenos Aires' Education Ministry says that only 100 of the city's 1,200 schools have budget problems and that its education budget for 2010 is the highest in the last eight years.
The federal government says it spends 6.45 percent of GDP on public education, one of the highest figures in recent decades.
In both cases, however, most of the money is spent on teacher salaries and not on infrastructure.
"Unfortunately we have been very patient over the years, but out patience is over. We want practical solutions," said Hagman.