Czech Republic enters next round of the fight over Romani children and special education
The fact that too many children, particularly Romani ones, attend "special schools" in the Czech Republic is a problem that experts and politicians have been discussing here for 25 years. It is also being discussed abroad, because the Czech Republic has reaped criticism from the European Union for it as well.
Is a solution now at hand? According to the number of children enrolled in the "special schools" - which have been renamed the "practical primary schools" but which still provide special education - Romani people living in the Czech Republic suffer from mild mental disability at approximately 10 times the rate that is usual for the rest of the population.
In the educational psychology counseling centers, Romani children score low on IQ tests, while in the mainstream schools, teachers find that Romani children have problems with learning and need special care in a "special" school. Several years ago a leading psychologist from a counseling center in Prague told me this was not suprising, because "white" children began mandatory school attendance here back in the 18th century, while Romani people were still travelling and took no interest in school.
This legacy, according to the psychologist, has lasted for decades and is necessarily manifesting itself to this day. The Roma may make up for this handicap in another 50 or 100 years, he told me.
The psychologist was convinced this would only happen with the aid of the "special schools". Such opinions remain very strong here.
The "special schools" have repeatedly survived criticism and efforts to limit them. They are supported not just by the teachers who work in them and by some educational psychologists, but also by many mayors, parents and politicians - those who would prefer to see separate schools for their "clever and well-behaved" white children.
At yesterday's press conference, however, Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier once again confirmed that the Government has a clear aim in this regard today. The plan is to limit the "special schools" and create a school system that ensures an equal right to education for each and every child.
There is no need to doubt whether Dienstbier himself is serious about this. The problem is to what degree his opinions are shared by the rest of his colleagues in government, in particular by Czech Education Minister Marcel Chládek.
Last spring, for example, Chládek wrote a letter to the authors of the "Call to Preserve the Practical Primary Schools" in which he said he hoped he would "succeed in dispelling [their] fears." He reminded them that mere "IQ measurement" would not determine assignment into special education, but that a child's "overall degree of preparedness for school education" would.
Such considerations would essentially preserve limitless options for assigning children into the "special schools". It is also worth remembering that one of the initiators of that "Call" is Mayor of Nový Bydžov Pavel Louda, and there is no doubt what his relationship is toward the Romani minority and what his reason is for supporting the "special schools".
Mayor Louda recently said the following, for example: "Even Hollywood has never invented such a screenplay. Integrating a gypsy!"
He then added: "You extend your hand to a gypsy, he'll pull it off and be thinking as he rounds the corner how else to rob you." In the open letter to the Education Minister, he and the other authors of the "Call" also wrote that the "functional system of special schools" is being destroyed by "so-called human rights defenders", the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, the ombud and nonprofits.
Chládek has never objected to any of that invective. Indeed, his cabinet colleague Jiří Dienstbier evidently belongs in that category of the "so-called human rights defenders".
We will soon see what this current round of the clash over the future of the "special schools" will produce - MPs are supposed to return to their negotiations over a proposed amendment to the Schools Act this month. Dienstbier has also admitted that it is not yet clear what will happen with regard to the precise wording of the paragraphs legislating the options for recommending pupils for enrollment into the "special schools".
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