Schools Act Causes Parliamentary Chaos
A new version of the country's main law on schools has caused political tempers to flare and raised the prospect of late-night sessions in Parliament ahead of the midsummer holiday at the end of this week.
With the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act more or less stalled in Parliament all month, and no certainty whether a basket of issues would be resolved by the time school starts in September, the Cabinet made a decision on Monday to leave one of the most thorny questions - financing - out of the act, and handle it separately in the fall. The Cultural Affairs Committee approved that proposal today in a special meeting, with the potentially late-night Parliament session scheduled for Thursday.
In general, the Education Ministry wants to move to a more centralized model of financing, which, opposition members such as Center's Mailis Reps charge, goes over "local governments' heads" and would have each school's budget come directly from the state.
Jaak Allik, a Social Democratic member of the Cultural Affairs Committee of Parliament, said on Monday that the draft legislation is "flouting parliamentary democracy."
"We will see the financial strangling by the state of upper secondary schools in smaller settlements and some county seats," he told uudised.err.ee.
Some Cultural Affairs Committee members from the coalition, such as Urmas Klaas, have also alluded to a possible violation of autonomy of local governments. Nor is it clear what would become of the 3 million euros or so that local governments currently receive from the state to fund auxiliary services like speech therapists and counselors. That money is not provided for in the new draft law.
Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said that Cabinet considers the part on the financing model, Section 82, the worst impasse, and the move to defer discussion was supposed to ease tensions. However, it didn't work. Financing is far from the only issue at stake. There is disagreement over a funding arrangement that could have some entry-level teachers and veteran educators making the same salary.
Teachers' unions, who led a major strike just last year, issued a statement this morning expressing concern that the new law will not provide enough certainty about how many hours teachers will have to actually work.
The Ministry of Education has rebuffed charges that it is rushing the law through.
The ministry's public relations department director Argo Kerb told uudised.err.ee that the interest groups have been involved every step of the way.
"The Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, which came up for a second reading on Wednesday, has been two years in the making. The comment period alone lasted for more than a year, so noone can claim anyone has been hasty. The law began to be drafted back in 2011. Throughout all of last year, discussions on the school network took plaice in all counties. There were also feedback and information meetings where over 1,000 representatives of municipalities and schools were present," said Kerb.
He added that negotiations on restructuring the profession of teacher lasted from early in 2012 to that fall and that the working group was broad-based, consisting of educational unions, local government and NGOs.
The draft law was approved by the government on December 6, 2012. The second reading started last Wednesday.