Professor Iulius Rostas about school segregation: "Bad not only for Roma children, but for the whole society"
From 2 to 8 March 2018 a European Conference was hosted by the students of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and the Sloan School of Management at MIT. The goal of the conference was to host panels dedicated to discussing what the “European Way” might be and what it means at this current time.
One panel was on “Rights of the Roma Child: The Struggle to Combat School Segregation in the EU” and discussed the costs of Roma school segregation, the current EU and national policies towards this topic, and the role national and local governments can play to ensure that all Roma children have equal access to education. One of the panelists was Professor Iulius Rostas, the Chair of Romani Studies at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.
I had the chance to interview Professor Rostas about the important topic of school segregation that Roma children face throughout Europe today.
In addition to the costs of segregation on the Romani children, in what ways does this segregation negatively impact more advantaged children and children from the majority?
One of the key messages about school segregation to be communicated to the public is that segregation is bad not only for Roma children, but it is bad for the whole society. One of the main roles of the education system is to prepare children to be good citizens and to make it in life. If children are deprived of the possibility to acquire those skills to interact and to effectively communicate with others in society because they are from a lower social status background, then it means their right to education is limited. Children from the majority, even those coming from rich family backgrounds, are also affected. This is something to emphasize when talking about Roma school segregation. If we, those that are against school segregation, talk only about the Roma children, then we will have a hard time convincing the majority to do something for Roma.
Do you believe that the lack of intercultural contacts of children in school due to this segregation leads to less tolerance for diversity and an exacerbation of racism in society when the children are older?
Definitely, direct contact from early ages will help promote a diverse society and the fight against racism. The majority will understand better what the problems faced by the minority are. In addition, members of the whole community could define together what behavior is and is not acceptable in their community. Early socialization will help children develop their social capital, be part of networks that will help them later in life to find jobs or to deal more effectively with issues they are facing.
From an economic point of view, how can inclusive educational systems result in reduced costs for the state?
Inclusive educational systems are key for sustainable economic growth in the future. In an inclusive educational system, those minority groups that are traditionally excluded have the opportunity to receive the same quality education and to acquire marketable skills. Thus, groups that normally would have become a burden for the state budget will become contributors to the budget. This is an economic argument, but the long-term cost for the state goes beyond the economic argument. In a society where its members received inclusive education, the level of trust among its members is higher as direct contact between individuals generates that higher level of trust. Moreover, this trust is extended to institutions and society at large. A society and economy based on trust is more efficient than a society based on coercion.
Despite there being stringent international standards against discrimination, domestic governments still have ambiguity in their laws regarding the prohibition of school segregation on the basis of ethnicity or other grounds. How do you propose to convince national and local governments to adopt a comprehensive legal prohibition of discrimination? Does the EU have the power to impose such rules on Member States?
It is true, governments are still not convinced that segregation is discrimination and that it is bad for society. Let me share with you a recent experience. I was invited to Harvard University to give a speech at the European Conference organized by students from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Magda Matache, an instructor at Harvard who has experience working on Roma school desegregation, organized the panel. In preparation for the conference, some embassies proposed to also have speakers that support segregation for the sake of debate. They did not realize how bizarre their objection was!
Often there is a confusion between minority education and school segregation. While minority education is in the minority’s mother tongue totally, or in a significant proportion of the instruction time, school segregation is an expression of antigypsyism. While minority education is about promoting minority culture and identity, school segregation is about neglecting Romani identity.
Yes, the EU can fix this problem. On the one hand, the EU can amend its antidiscrimination framework by making clear that segregation is an egregious form of discrimination. On the other hand, the EU can make sure that its funding is not used to segregate Roma. Moreover, they should in fact condition the EU funding on promoting inclusive education and inclusive societies.
How do you suggest that local and national governments raise awareness that combatting segregation is a matter of social justice and will benefit all members of society, not just the Roma people?
I do not expect local authorities and national governments to do much on that. I think this will be the role of activists, teachers, school principals and state authorities, including the judiciary, which should sanction the segregation. However, some state institutions should assume a role in communicating to the public what is acceptable and what is not. Definitely, school segregation is unacceptable in a democratic society in the 21st century! Roma and pro-Roma activists should frame the issue of school segregation as a historical injustice that affects the entire community. In this way, they will be able to find allies and to build coalitions with other groups interested in reforming education and fighting for social justice. This is one of the lessons learnt from the book I edited on Roma school desegregation in Central and Eastern Europe.
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