Just 28% of the Portuguese population between 25 and 64 has completed high school. The figure is 85% in Germany, 91% in the Czech Republic and 89% in the U.S.
There is substantial evidence from elsewhere that education confers broad economic benefits. Ireland was one of the EU's poorest countries a generation ago. But it threw EU subsidy money into technical education and remade itself as a destination for high-tech labor, made doubly attractive by low corporate taxes. Ireland is now, even after a brutal banking crisis, among the richest nations in Europe.
"They had an educated-enough work force that they could move into a technology industry, and they rose out of nowhere," says Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University professor.
Prof. Hanushek and a professor from the University of Munich have linked GDP growth with population-wide performance on standardized tests. They calculate that Portugal's long-term rate of economic growth would be 1.5 percentage points higher if the country had the same test scores as super-educated Finland.
Education long was an afterthought here. "The southern countries like Portugal and Spain and the south of France and Italy, we have always had some problems related with education," says António Nóvoa, a historian who is rector of the University of Lisbon. "That's been like that since the 16th century."
The repressive dictatorship that ruled Portugal from 1926 to 1974 had the idea "that people should not have ambition to be something different than what they were," Mr. Nóvoa says. The result was widespread illiteracy and little formal schooling; just three years were compulsory. Huge leaps have been made since the 1970s, he says, but "it is not easy to change a history of five centuries."
Portugal has just begun phasing in 12 years of required schooling; now, Portuguese can leave school after ninth grade. Many do.
A push to evaluate teachers triggered searing strikes and demonstrations in 2008, souring relations between powerful teachers' unions and the government. The political life of education ministers is measured in months: since the dictatorship ended in 1974, there have been 27.
parents protest cuts to quasi-private schools
To the system's critics, a fight that has developed over quasi-private schools is emblematic of what's wrong. With budgets tight, the government has imposed deep cuts on schools that are at the margin of the state's control—no matter that some are among the best.
In one town, A Dos Cunhados, the local school isn't run or owned by the government. It is managed by the Catholic Church, in an arrangement that dates to the end of the dictatorship, when the new Portuguese state found it didn't have enough facilities.
At the school, Externato de Penafirme, as at 90 others with what are called "association contracts," the state pays a management fee to a private entity, which broadly follows the state curriculum but hires its own teachers.
The deputy principal, Carlos Silva, once taught chemistry in the public school system. He was shuffled through four schools in four years. Frustrated, he quit and enrolled in a seminary. Afterward, as a priest, he asked his bishop about returning to the classroom, and was assigned to Externato de Penafirme.
Faced with the cuts, students and parents organized. In December, 4,000 people held hands in a big ring around the Penafirme campus. The pictures hit television. A Facebook group sprang up. In January, students walked out of dozens of the privately run schools for three days. To dramatize a claim the cuts would mean the death of their schools, students and parents from 55 schools ferried mock coffins to Lisbon and put them on the median strip outside Ms. Alçada's ministry.
Last month, the education ministry eased somewhat, agreeing to restore part of the lost funding for this semester.
A Nation of Dropouts Shakes Europe
By CHARLES FORELLE
March 25, 2011