A Hungarian court says a church-run school in a Romani community segregates. Its backers says it offers a head start.
Nyiregyhaza, HUNGARY | The Soja Miklos Elementary School sits in the middle of a Romani settlement in this city in northeastern Hungary. All of its students are poor, and most are Roma.
In February a Nyiregyhaza court said that amounted to segregation. It ordered the local government and the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church, which runs the school, to shut it down once its current study body goes on to middle school.
Zoltan Balog, Hungary’s human resources minister, testified for the school in court last year. On the day of the ruling, he said the decision had not changed his view. Establishing a school inside a Romani settlement meant its children would get the same access to a quality education as do middle class children, he said.
The Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF) doesn’t agree. In 2007, the group, which advocates on behalf of poor children, sued the municipal authorities in Nyiregyhaza over a school in the same community with a majority-Romani student body. As in the recent case, the court ruled that the school had violated Hungary’s equal opportunity law.
The school was closed; its students were sent to study elsewhere, with transit in a free school bus. Authorities converted the closed school into a social and cultural center, which included, among other things, a laundry room, a library, and a Catholic chapel.
After a few years, however, authorities canceled the bus and turned the center back into a school – the Soja Miklos school, operated by the Greek Catholic Church.
‘JUST A TRICK’
“Allowing foundations or churches to run schools is just a trick to segregate Romani and non-Romani children,” said Erzsebet Mohacsi, a Romani activist and the director of CFCF. “This is done all over the country. You can’t find religious schools with mixed kids. They’re either elite schools for the majority or Gypsy schools.”
Sociologist Gabor Havas, a former member of Hungary’s parliament and one of the authors of a blueprint for education reform initiated by the previous government, said continuing pressure to keep Romani and “white” children apart has turned the tradition of segregation on its head.
“It used to be the middle class parents who decided to send their children to religious schools, and that’s how segregated schools were created for the rest of the children. In towns and villages where the proportion of the poor was high, this was perceived as the only escape route for the middle class,” Havas said.
Now, he said, religious schools are often used to provide a better education for Romani children inside their own settlements so they do not mix with other children.
In an email, the Greek Catholic Church said it runs various types of schools – some with student bodies that are primarily poor, some mostly middle class, and still others with a mixed population. It said charges that its schools serve a segregationist agenda are “racist.”
The church has appealed the recent court ruling and, pending a decision, admitted new first-graders for the current school year.
THE ‘PISA SHOCK’
Segregation has been an acknowledged problem in Hungary’s schools at least since the early 2000s, when officials there got a rude awakening with results of the first PISA (pdf) exam. The Program for International Student Assessment test is administered to 15-year-olds in 32 of the world’s wealthiest countries, mostly in Europe.
Hungarian students scored worse in reading and math skills than the average for countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administered the test. Evaluators attributed most of literacy gap to what school students attended. Only in Belgium and Germany was a student’s school a bigger factor in reading performance.
Other findings showed a higher-than-average disparity between the results of poor and better-off students in Hungary.
Many policymakers who were active at the time still refer to this as the “PISA shock.”
The Socialist government that led Hungary from 2002 to 2010 had big plans for desegregation but limited its efforts to offering subsidies to schools that integrated the poorest students. Later even this modest policy was scaled back and the government offered subsidies to schools just for demonstrating that they educated underprivileged pupils – even segregated schools that taught only Romani children.
The poorest, of course, benefited from these extra funds, but the policy change also meant the end of integration.
Meanwhile, for years parents were able to send their child to any public school and even suggest what teachers the school should hire. “In this way, the more affluent households got to send their children to the schools with the best teachers, while the poor had to put up with the rest,” said sociologist Agnes Kende, a research fellow at the Center for Policy Studies in Budapest and an expert on Romani education and integration.
“The system has enabled middle class parents to escape from the Roma,” she said.
SEPARATE BUT EQUAL
But mixing for the sake of mixing will not do Hungary’s poor children much good, said Katalin Victor Langerné, deputy state secretary for social inclusion at the Human Resources Ministry.
“Taking children to a different school with a smaller number of disadvantaged children is not enough in itself. Mixing the numbers and improving the statistics should not equal either inclusion or integration,” she said.
Langerné said the Soja Miklos Elementary School is preparing poor children to integrate into the majority by helping them catch up. Putting its students into a classroom with middle-class kids before they’re ready could do more harm than good, she said.
“If those children fail at something, that could frustrate them and lead to a reversal of at least four years in their stage of development. This would make them feel vulnerable, and those children would decide not to attend school anymore,” Langerné said.
According to Havas, however, the problems have been not with frustrated children, but with ill-equipped teenagers. The Soja Miklos school’s predecessor had students aged 6 to 14. When it closed, Havas said, the performance of its older students lagged so far behind that of their peers that it was unlikely they would catch up when transferred elsewhere.
Mario Kiss, a former student at that school, was 9 when it was shut down and he was sent to an integrated school in Nyiregyhaza.
“I managed to fit in and didn’t experience any discrimination,” he said. In subjects where the new students needed to catch up, teachers provided extra help in after-school classes, he added.
“When it came to behavior, all the kids were all right. I don’t think there was anyone who wasn’t accepted by his or her peers. I really loved that school,” Kiss said.
Langerné acknowledged that the eventual goal is to integrate Romani children into the majority community,
but she said schools like Soja Miklos serve a legitimate purpose, and she disputed the notion that the school segregates. Segregationist schools, she said, tend to offer a worse education, and Soja Miklos does not.
“Here the infrastructure is perfect, the school is well-equipped, and the teachers are all prepared,” she said. “I believe that having a high percentage of underprivileged children doesn’t mean that the school is segregated. The quality of education depends on the amount of work we put into it, not on the percentages of children.”
Further, she said parents of students at the Soja Miklos school had opted to send their children there, so closing the school would infringe on their freedom.
But there’s little choice involved, according to Mohacsi of the CFCF, who said the poorest families cannot afford transportation to send their children elsewhere. She said about a quarter of the community’s children go to Soja Miklos for their primary education.
Parents in the community declined to comment for this article, saying they had had enough media attention in prior stories on the school.
Kiss, who is now a volunteer for the CFCF, has worked with the school’s students in after-school programs and has spoken with their parents. He said he believes the newer school provides higher quality education than the one he attended, noting that the Greek Catholic Church provides teaching tools for free, so parents don’t have to pay for books and stationery.
“Years ago there were 14-year-olds in the eighth grade who couldn’t read. Now, I think by the end of the first year everyone knows the alphabet,” Kiss said.
Judging the school’s performance is difficult, as mandatory nationwide testing is first conducted in the sixth grade. So far, Soja Miklos has students ages 6 to 10. The oldest will not enter sixth grade until two years after they leave the school.
Asked about her students’ performance, the school’s principal, Krisztina Halasz, agreed to respond by email but had not done so by press time.
Both Mohacsi and Kiss acknowledge the church school does a good job of preparing children for later grades. But they say keeping school-age children on the settlement goes a step too far, retarding social development by limiting kids’ contact with other groups of students. They contend a church-run kindergarten would provide sufficient preparation to send the students to schools elsewhere.
“I don’t believe that simply working a little bit more on their behavior will help them integrate,” Kiss said. “For that you need an integrated school.”
Krisztian Simon is a journalist for the Hungarian news site vs.hu, where a Hungarian-language version of this article will be published. Homepage photo by János Kummer/vs.hu. This article was originally published on Transitions Online.