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Triin Käpp: Private, specialized and elite schools, and who or what is the state?

There are two confusing concepts being tossed around in relation to the current debate regarding the financing of private schools, wrote St. Peter’s Lutheran School of Tartu founder Triin Käpp.

The first of the two is private school. What is it? Are they elite offspring- and “obscene money”-producing factory (an image that tends to be perpetuated in media comment sections) or are private schools specialized schools attended by students with special needs? Or something else? When you consider Waldorf education or Christian schools, then are you dealing with rich people or special needs?

Thus it is important to distinguish between three concepts: private, elite, and specialized schools. Most private school managers have long since wanted a name change, that they be referred to as community schools, however this suggestion has been bogged down on one side by the concept of private schools as defined by legislation and on the other by the fact that the suggested replacement language isn’t quite accurate either — a community school could also be a municipal school.

A survey recently conducted by Turu-uurignute AS also shows that people are confused as well — private school and elite school are often considered to be the same thing and are treated as such, despite the fact that the schools we consider to be elite schools based on state examination rankings (which is certainly not the best measure, however we tend to define elite schools based on these results) are generally actually municipal schools.

Estonia’s private school landscape is diverse. Four percent of children attend private schools, and as study results also show, the majority of Estonian residents believe that private schools enrich our educational landscape.

And herein lies the meat of the matter. We should not pit private schools, elite schools and “regular” schools against one another; rather, we should be talking about one comprehensive educational network, in which there is a place for a diverse range of schools.

Based on current conditions, it is not possible to have small classes, provide religious education or teach children based on the Waldorf model of education in municipal schools — thus, private schools are necessary for such endeavors. Due to their small size, private schools are often used as so-called “test labs” for new educational approaches; it is possible to experiment with educational innovations, of which many have since become the norm today in municipal schools as well (such as student-supportive evaluations).

It is not elite offspring that attend private schools, but rather regular children, often for whom municipal school isn’t a good fit. The school’s distinguishing features (e.g. smaller classes, ideology-based approach, different methodology) are paid for by the parents.

Speak rather of the taxpayer

And so we arrive at our second question — who or what is the state? I find that more appropriate than to speak of state funding would be to talk about taxpayer funding, because otherwise we will remain fighting over whether or not local governments are the state as well. A lot of effort is currently being expended on proving this fact.

The actual question, after all, is how much does each child’s education cost taxpayers. And we cannot continue talking about a 1.6-times difference [in cost], as this difference is based solely on who is distributing taxpayer funds — whether that is the central fund or the local government. Every child’s education should cost taxpayers the same amount of money. And if a parent wants to provide their children with any special considerations, then they should pay for the difference.

We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Private schools, which have been established according to pertinent legislation, have been attended by nearly 6,000 children, whose parents are perfectly ordinary people. Stability and sustainability are crucial for a child. If we were to begin unexpectedly and rapidly changing laws, then where will all of this leave the child? A child who loves their teacher (you know very well what kind of bond is formed with a child’s first teacher — every parent knows that their authority drops quite a few notches in the face of “teacher said so”), their classmates and their school.

If private schools were a normal part of the educational network, parents wouldn’t have to tremble with fear, not knowing how long their child’s school will even remain in existence. Reciprocal agreements with various state authorities (the Ministry [of Education], local governments) can ensure a calm, consistent and viable system in which every child can be sure that if they want, they can complete their education at the same school at which they began it, and it wouldn’t be necessary to talk about any sort of mystical “places” in municipal schools that would need to be guaranteed for children currently studying in private schools. Let’s communicate, strike a bargain, and look at the bigger picture.

On my part, I’d also pose the question, what on earth is an ELITE school? At the end of the day, the question remains: what kind of citizens do we want in our society? Our schools are raising tomorrow’s decision-makers. Who is the ELITE to come out of our schools?

Editor: Editor: Aili Sarapik

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