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Apr 04, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

Teacher demonstrations: Yet another sign of democracy at work

Here we go again: a new social issue on the menu. This time it’s education occupying the domestic public sphere as Hungarian teachers voice their concerns over the elements of an overdue structural reform of public education.

The government, just as it should, has responded and opened a public roundtable to listen to the proposals and reach a common solution. No doubt, sooner or later that common solution will come in the interest of a common good: improved, quality public education for Hungary’s children. The key is public discussion, natural to a functioning democracy, natural for public policy issues in Hungary.

The Orbán Government listens to constructive criticism and will not hesitate to modify existing legislation to get better results. Those who care to take a hard look at what’s going on in the education debate will recognize some patterns we see in democracies at work.

We’re now reaching a point when discussions start and yield results, when those who believe in constructive progress rise above those purely interested in chaos. Those interested in progress will turn to demonstrations to get their points across, but those interested in chaos abuse demonstrations to artificially stir up controversy and exploit the opportunity for political gain. The former, those interested in progress, represent teacher’s interests at the roundtable talks, whereas the latter refuse invitations to the roundtables. The former represent the biggest teachers’ unions and professional organizations. The latter is headed by former and active opposition politicians, the very same political figures who have been present at every single political demonstration since 2010 – shouting from the barricades about education, media freedom or whatever the particular flavor of the day may be. Yesterday, the former was negotiating a list of 25 points with government representatives, while the latter organized a “nationwide” strike in which only two percent of the schools participated.

Let’s turn to the professional side. In 2010, the Orbán government was re-elected and public education, like most public sectors in the country, was in disarray. For eight years the former, Socialist-led government had reduced education funding, teacher’s salaries plummeted and municipalities made responsible for local schools accumulated debt of 1.3 billion HUF (approximately 4.1 million EUR). Debt led to hundreds of schools being closed and thousands of teachers being laid off.

The system needed a quick fix. The quick fix was centralization, realized under the Klebelsberg State School Administration Center, known by its Hungarian acronym as KLIK.  School debt was assumed by the government as soon as central budget conditions allowed in 2012. For the first time in years, teachers’ salaries gradually increased. Every party at the roundtable consultation agreed that the previous system was not working and that the central government must play a more active role.

The professional debate today is not about the strategic direction but about the details. After listening to the roundtable talks, Minister of State at the Ministry of Human Capacities Bence Rétvári said that Parliament will draft legislation to set up a new, less centralized system by September. The roundtable also discussed reducing the administrative burdens on teachers, unifying teacher training and a review of the National Curriculum and Framework Curriculum. The government agreed to reassign responsibility for public education to Minister of State László Palkovics in order to ensure a more fruitful dialogue.

Four years ago, the government put out a major fire in the field of public education. Today, schools are open, teachers are not being sent home for lack of finances, and municipalities have been relieved of their debt burden. The fire was extinguished quickly. But was the system completely fixed? Was the reform perfect? Of course not. However, with constructive debate at the Public Education Roundtable, the responsible ministry can take action based on the discussion.

Since establishing this roundtable forum in January, three meetings have been held. Within its framework, nearly a hundred experts have made proposals on 150 related issues. Thanks to the quick fix in 2012, none of these issues question the survival of the Hungarian public school system but search for ways to make it even better. And, with constructive professional partners, that’s a good debate to have.

The Orbán Government listens to the people and acts upon the issues that citizens deem important. Whenever Hungarians raised their concerns regarding a particular issue, like the Internet tax, the government was ready to listen and, if necessary, change the policies. This is the way modern democracies work.