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Editorial: the increasingly bitter private schools debate

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PHOTO: Urmas Nemvalts

Approved in the government and sent to the parliament, the Private Schools Act amendment bill has become contentious, at times erupting into a war of words between interest groups and politicians.

In 2010, Riigikogu made the formerly voluntary support of private schools by local governments mandatory. Last year, Supreme Court satisfied claim by Tallinn city council to declare as unconstitutional the situation where the state lays on local governments the obligation to partially finance private schools while not providing for that the money.

The new bill intended to enter into force as law starting 2017 would make covering of private school operating costs i.e. maintenance of the schoolhouse optional for local governments. Local governments may still support the private schools when finding the local school is needful for the community.

As at last year, Estonia had 46 private schools with 5,753 students. Covering their operating costs is the hot issue. Obviously, once obligation to cover these costs turns into an option, some of said schools may close doors.

In section 37, the constitution plainly states: «Everyone has the right to education. /.../ In order to make education accessible, the state and local governments shall maintain the requisite number of educational institutions. Other educational institutions, including private schools, may also be established and maintained pursuant to law.» A commentary to the constitution interprets that the standard does not specify the meaning of said «maintaining». With anything left loose, the door is opened for (political) twitches.

Recently in Postimees, education minister Jürgen Ligi thus wrote: «The financing of school network is decided by communities i.e. local governments. Up to now, local governments have had money planned in their budgets, and in their educational costs they will gain room for dealing with state gymnasiums and state basic schools programs. The state can invest no more, neither for the principle nor for the budget.»

The keepers of private schools and the parents who have invested in the schools are indignant and fearful. Among other things, the state is accused of suppressing private initiative and a desire to standardize. And the very desire to befittingly treat children with varying needs and talents has led the parents to put the kids in private schools.

The private schools debate has also been drawn into a stand-off between political world views. The debate of the bill in the Riigikogu may not descend into mutual insults and labelling. Sure, private schools are a niche issue, only relating to a couple of percent of pupils in Estonia. But each child is invaluable to the Estonian state and the maximal development of their abilities and talents ought to be our common goal.

Vitally for the society, the proceeding launched needs to come to a quality decision, such as will not necessitate court cases to again clarify interpretations. For that, we need to again essentially expound on the importance of private schools and their role in our educational system.

On Cartoon, the PRIVATE SCHOOL boy wishes the state would give him a push too.

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