The stand-off between supporters of private schools and education ministry has lasted for over half a year. This weekend, it assumed a dimension altogether new as 69 culture personas including the revered composer Arvo Pärt have signed an address to defend private schools' right to life.
It is only today, on Monday, that representatives of signatories head to education ministry to hand them the letter. While the addressees are yet to get their mail, phones of the authors have been ringing for days – with representatives of ministry calling. Before the letter was officially forwarder to Jürgen Ligi the education minister, signatories were receiving emails with answers bearing the signature of Mr Ligi.
The public debate is due to the law amendments regarding private schools stuck in cultural committee at Riigikogu and no agreement in sight within governing coalition to tweak the Private Schools Act.
On its opinion page today, dead-tree Postimees prints both address by culture personas and public response by Jürgen Ligi. The response, however, is not the same as what culture personas got personally from the minister. The personal letters were more moderate in tonality and likely to have been formulated at ministry press department.
In short, the culture personas letter warns about the destructive effect on private schools by planned financing amendment. In his opening statements, minister Jürgen Ligi (Reform) says he might sign the letter sign by honourable people himself, with a few facts added. Thereafter, however, he proceeds to upbraid them about the address not being by honourable people but a «bad PR firm and a cynical middleman». While public relations department at the ministry are trying to take a broader look at the standoff than a personal battle by Mr Ligi, the minister himself adds fuel to the fire.
Among other things, the minister claims a signatory understands not what the talk is about: «I asked a parent, in mine eyes most informed and likable, why [he or she] signed the letter. Regrettably, the answer revealed he had no idea what the debate was all about, how large are the private school privileges in Estonia, and that no other civilised country in the world has such.»
Mr Ligi says it is unbecoming to emphasise the need to support private schools in order to have world view based education: «The talk is also about the right to get an education based on world view but in a way like parents in ordinary schools have no world view wherefore they need to pay for the others. But after all these efforts the Estonian society cannot merge the otherwise-minded into a coming mental space nor pay extra for the European acts of terror for diverse world view – private schools can be founded on foreign language and any religion.»
«It’s very nice when people write letters to ministers and ministers write letters to people, and it is even nicer when ministers answer before a letter was even sent to them,» smiled a signatory, writer Karl Martin Sinijärv. «This shows our state to be led by well-informed people which adds to the feeling of security. Would be nicest if such nice talks would make all involved wiser and end up at a great result.»
«Good freak» schools
In no way linked to any private school, Mr Sinijärv sees these as the good king of freak which offer other-than and fresh ideas to the customary education system though under decades of reforms. He signed with the desire to add security and confidence to all schools assessed to be fit as educators – irrespective of form of ownership.
Also surprised by the pre-emptive response by the Minister, actress Kersti Heinloo – who has opted to have her two children at Keila Waldorf School Läte – said that «as I wrote to Indrek Saar (culture minister – edit) this fall for whom I voted and to Taavi Rõivas (prime minister – edit), I never got a word of response; but now when a letter is not yet officially formulated and delivered, I receive a reply, they try to manipulate me, make me feel guilty about not being intelligent enough and me not understanding what I have signed.»
Why did she sign and spoke out publicly? «I stand for the option to choose an alternative pedagogy school for my children, but as municipal schools do not feature the options, private school is the only way,» explained Ms Heinloo. «And I am upset that they are trying to divide us – it is unacceptable for me to be divided into camps, anger being stirred up.»
As for the composer Sven Grünberg, he actually got a phone call from a person working for the government. It was a high ranking official whom Mr Grünberg knows since childhood. «He said he respects and appreciates what I have done and said and agrees with most of that but that now our opinions were diverging,» said Mr Grünberg. «I said too bad but it does happen in life that people disagree.»
The composer said neither the phone call nor the letter by the minister made him change his mind – rather the opposite. «Diversity serves to enrich and naturally the private schools must be supported – take that away and things go wrong. Or let’s say like this: why repair what works,» said Mr Grünberg.
The composer added that he mostly likes the minister Jürgen Ligi and what he does. «But we live in an imperfect world and a couple of times even Mr Ligi has missed it,» observed Mr Grünberg. «With the professional army (as suggested by Mr Ligi while serving as defence minister – edit) and now this about private schools.»
The mythical Ligi
Assuming office as education minister less than a year ago, former finance minister Mr Ligi was aware of a greatest battle-to-be in the area of private schools financing.
With bouts, the dispute between Mr Ligi and supporters of private schools – mainly the citizen initiative formed by parents, Avalikult Haridusest – has been on since last fall. Both sides come with a bunch of arguments, both have their calculations how much money private schools are receiving or not from the state (and local governments). The main issue: are private schools being fattened on account of other schools or have they been neglected as orphans.
The debate is over €7m which the state is supposed to grant for private schools operations since the Supreme Court decision dating end of 2014. Education ministry desires to shake the obligation and let local governments have the freedom to cover or not cover operating costs for private schools in addition to municipal ones. The sides are debating whether and where private schools financing contradicts the constitution.
In December, the bill went thru its initial reading at Riigikogu and, pursuant to procedure, all kinds of correction proposals are not being discussed at cultural affairs committee thereof. The clock is ticking away an private schools have a continuous insecurity about their future – most realising that with state capitation fee and parental purse, it will be tough to keep doors open. Definitely, there will be schools that would cease to be.
Estonia has over fifty differing private schools, including ten Waldorf schools, seven Christian schools and seven schools for children with special needs. Half of private schools are in Tallinn. Outside of Tallinn, local governments have confirmed they would continue to support these. For the most part, the insecurity is about those in Tallinn.