Estonia’s great private schools debate: to fund or not to fund ({{commentsTotal}})

First grade students on their first day of school at Tartu Private School.
First grade students on their first day of school at Tartu Private School. Source: (Margus Ansu/Postimees/Scanpix)

A recently submitted letter of appeal co-signed by 75 leading figures of Estonian academia, culture and society in support of the country’s private schools has sparked a fierce new round of debates regarding a stalled bill proposing an amendment to an unconstitutional law which would release local governments from being required to fund the operational costs of private schools.

75 academics, cultural and societal figures in Estonia submitted a co-signed letter of appeal yesterday calling for the administration, the Riigikogu and the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research to halt changes being debated to the nation’s Private School Act which would release local governments from the obligation to fund private schools’ operating subsidies, which are used to cover building maintenance costs.

According to ETV nightly news broadcast “Aktuaalne kaamera”, the bill in question has been stalled by deliberation in the Riigikogu’s Cultural Affairs Committee after its introduction and first reading in late 2015.

In the letter, the cosigners found that the planned change in the law jeopardizes the future of schools founded by civic initiative and thus also the continuation of diversified education in Estonia. “In our opinion, the currently proposed amendment to the law is based on not on substantive but rather financial considerations and may have a disastrous effect on a well-functioning system,” read the letter.

Stressing that the founders of private schools have been idealists, not businessmen, the 75 co-signers found that private schools play an important role in the diversification of education, both in offering parents options and in the implementation of innovations in education, and that the establishment of such diversity in educational opportunities was not only the state’s responsibility but also the right and freedom of all citizens.

Co-signers of the letter also addressed the myth that private schools were the exclusive domain of the wealthy elite. “Private school parents are mostly regular people and not in any way much better off than average families, and among them are many whose children for some reason have just not been a good fit for regular school and for whom it is already expensive and difficult to educate their child in a private school,” the letter explained. “Difficulties aside, they are thankful that this opportunity exists and their child has gotten a solid start to their education.”

The 75 co-signers of the appeal included but were not limited to a number of professors and educators, actors, musicians, academics, playwrights, conductors, architects, artists, athletes, producers, and entrepreneurs, and included the likes of Arvo Pärt, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Märt Avandi, Tõnis Mägi, Jaan Kaplinski, Mihhail Lotman, and Urmas Viilma.

The Riigikogu accepted the appeal, which was presented to Vice-President of the Riigikogu Helir-Valdor Seeder and members of the Cultural Affairs Committee yesterday by a number of its co-signers. The appeal is to be forwarded to the committee itself for consideration as well.

Is Tallinn the only obstacle?

According to Cultural Affairs Committee Chairman Laine Randjärv (Reform), the main problem lies with Tallinn, as many other local governments have already agreed to voluntarily continue subsidizing their private schools’ operation, and that the bill would likely not reach its second reading in the Riigikogu until a consensus had been achieved in the committee, coalition partners, and society as a whole.

Randjärv found that if this appeal helped resolve the debate as well as helped city leaders in the capital understand that Tallinn was its current focus — as this was not an issue among other local governments — “then this letter is very important and has achieved its objective.”

Deputy Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart asserted, however, that, to his knowledge, there were a number of other local governments currently in disputes with the state about covering the operating costs of private schools.

Regarding concerns with Tallinn, however, Kõlvart noted that the city is willing to support Christian schools and schools for students with educational special needs, but not schools paralleling municipal education. “We support diversity in education, and to me it seems like the initiative to support schools for children with educational special needs and Christian schools originated with the city of Tallinn,” the deputy mayor explained.

Minister of Education and Research: Funding is increasing, not decreasing

Responding to the appeal received yesterday, Minister of Education and Research Jürgen Ligi stated that while some had gotten the impression from somewhere that the government plans to strip private schools of their educational funding, the opposite was actually true. “We have increased educational funding hand in hand with the growth of funding for local governments — last year by 27.6 percent and this year by 7.7 percent — and will be increasing it in 2017 as well,” Ligi confirmed.

According to the minister, a separate fund is being planned to supplement educational and infrastructure funding for private schools offering educational diversity, and the state would continue to support the education and schools of children with special needs on a separate basis.

Referring to the 2014 Supreme Court decision regarding the matter at hand, however, Ligi noted, “The current regulation regarding infrastructure or operating subsidies is what is unconstitutional. A way out of the situation would be a bill that essentially makes private schools a part of the school system, which is developed in conjunction with local governments.”

In his opinion, however, the solution could not be the government automatically subsidizing private schools’ infrastructure costs in addition to their educational funding if local governments were already supporting their school systems. Likewise, noted the minister, the central government could not support private schools to a greater extent than municipal schools, as they could not knowingly manufacture further inequality between children. He noted that state support for private school children was currently 1.6 times greater than its support for municipal school children.

According to the minister, almost all local governments have confirmed that they would continue to support infrastructure costs at local private schools, and so the country was not faced with a situation where the future of its private schools is at stake. Ligi noted that only Tallinn has continued to complicate the matter, although he noted that even in the capital a verbal agreement has already been given to continue supporting private schools providing educational diversity.

Representative of private schools: Minister’s claim of preferential funding untrue

According to Katrin Tibar, a member of the nonprofit “Avalikult Haridusest” (“Publicly About Education”), the Minister of Education and Research had been disseminating false information for some time already regarding private schools wanting 1.6 times more funding per child than municipal schools, giving the impression that municipal schools received less funding than their counterparts. “Such conscious misinformation is instigating antagonism and class hatred in our society and should not be acceptable for the position of Minister of Education and Research,” noted Tibar.

“A significant portion of [private schools’] costs are paid for directly out of parents’ pockets,” she continued. “Municipal schools receive full funding from taxpayers: part of the money comes directly out of the state budget, and the other part via the local government. Minister Jürgen Ligi only mentions the money received by municipal schools that comes straight out of the state budget, however, ignoring taxpayer money received via the local government’s funding.”

According to Tibar, private school costs are currently covered by three main sources of funding: teachers’ pay by educational funding, utilities including heat, water, and electricity by operating subsidies, and all other costs by tuition paid for by the parents, including rental of the school building and support services, as well as all other costs not covered by the aforementioned two other sources of funding. She noted that if private schools were to lose operational subsidies, that would require a huge increase in the cost of tuition simply in order to cover the school’s costs, which would put private school education out of reach of families earning average wages.

The Ministry of Education and Research rejected the accusations put forth by “Avalikult Haridusest”, offering an explanation of the background on schools’ various sources of support.

According to the ministry, the central government has provided local governments and private schools with a set amount of educational funding per child, which covers the salaries of its teachers and principals, school lunches, textbooks, as well as provides support for additional training. Municipal school infrastructure and other operating costs are required to be covered by local governments; the state does not provide support for these costs.

However, due the current situation during the transitional period until the unconstitutionality of the current Private School Act can be resolved, the state has concurrently been both providing private schools with educational funding and covering the upkeep of their infrastructure and other operational costs.

Last year, private schools received a total of €10.8 million in educational funding, and the state provided an additional €6.8 million in support for covering their operating costs, which totaled 1.6 times greater support per student than received by local governments, as the latter did not receive additional funds from the state to cover operating costs.

This year the respective figures increased to €11.7 and €7.4 million, which was likewise 1.6 times greater support per private school student than their municipal school counterpart.

Cultural Affairs Committee member: we can compromise on level of support

Speaking in an interview with radio station Vikerraadio, Cultural Affairs Committee member Kalle Muuli (IRL) recognized that if the bill proposed by the Minsitry of Education and Research were to pass, private schools in many places would lose local government funding, which would cause steep increases in tuition costs that would put private school education out of reach of families not as well off financially.

Muuli noted that based on current tuition costs, which were approximately 50€ per month in Christian schools and 70-80€ per month in Waldorf schools, perhaps families earning minimum wage couldn’t pay for private school, but families earning average wages could. If private schools were to lose the support of operational subsidies, however, tuition could spike by as much as 100€ per month, depending on the school, a jump Muuli regarded as crushing.

The committee member recognized, however, that the current system was unsustainable.

“The arrangement must be changed,” admitted Muuli. “Local governments should be given certain rights in cases where private schools want to receive financial support — the right to be involved in how the private school is run, the option to put their own children in that school if the local government should want to close the local municipal school.”

The Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) proposed a compromise: that local governments continue to be required to compensate operational costs, but to a lesser extent than currently. “We have offered a compromise of 75 percent of operational subsidies being paid for by the local government,” Muuli specified.

Social Democrat Mihkel Raud, another member of the Cultural Affairs Committee, noted that the bill currently being weighed would greatly improve the situation for Waldorf schools and other schools offering alternative education.

“With this bill, we have been able to create a supplementary educational diversity fund which would help further finance educational institutions offering actual educational alternatives,” Raud shared on social media. “For example, for the first time, they would have the systematic capability to improve school infrastructure.”

“However, local governments, including Tallinn, would continue to provide these schools with operational subsidies as they have always done,” Raud continued. “Thus, compared to today, the situation would vastly improve for those schools over whose fate all those cultural figures are so rightly concerned.”

Editor: Editor: Aili Sarapik

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