A bill which would reform the kindergarten system in Estonia was voted down at the Riigikogu, meaning it is now off the agenda.
The bill would, among other things, have made the Estonian language mandatory in all kindergartens – which children attend up to age seven – and would also have changed the application process for places.
A motion from the opposition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) to reject the bill passed, by a fairly narrow margin, with 42 votes in favor and 34 against, meaning the bill did not get its first Riigikogu reading.
Center has 26 MPs, EKRE 19.
Most significantly, the coalition Center Party voted in favor of the EKRE proposal and against its coalition partner, Reform – at a time when a government split had already emerged, ostensibly over legislation amending family support payments.
Mart Võrklaev, Reform's chief whip at the Riigikogu, told ERR that the Center Party had previously expressed support for the same bill at cabinet and Riigikogu culture committee level.
Võrklaev said: "EKRE has constantly presented itself as a great enthusiast of Estonian-language education. However, with today's decision, the masks have dropped and both parties have shown that they are opposed to it. I recommend that voters keep this in mind in March 2023," referring to the next general election.
Estonian-only education from kindergarten age has long been a Reform Party staple policy.
Another opposition party, the national-conservative Isamaa, this time voted in-step with Reform, whereas it had voted against Reform on the family benefits bill.
Isamaa chair Helir-Valdor Seeder said Center's actions had not come as a surprise to him, noting that: "This is particularly the case in the current situation, and considering the relations between the coalition partners. The Center Party can stick to its fundamental roots, and continue to oppose the rapid transition to Estonian-language education."
Center has traditionally seen a large component of its support base derive from voters from the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia, though this has dwindled in recent years.
Seeder noted that while the bill in any case did not go far enough in establishing fully-Estonian-language education, it was nevertheless a step in the right direction.
As to Isamaa's alignment vis-a-vis Reform, Seeder said that the party did not take into account whether a bill was initiated by the coalition or by the opposition, calling such a strategy "weird".
Isamaa has 12 MPs, Reform, 34.
The nine MPs from the other opposition party, the Social Democrats (SDE), abstained from the vote.
The debate on the bill was headed by Mihhail Stalbuhhin (Center), Heidy Purga (Reform), Heiki Hepner (Isamaa), Helle-Moonika Helme (EKRE) and Jaak Juske (SDE).
The bill's main provisions
The bill on pre-primary education and child care (579 SE) stipulated that the language of instruction for kindergartens from age three upwards would in the n run of things be Estonian, while at least one full-time Estonian-speaking teacher would be mandatory for every playgroup, by 2027.
While another language of instruction would have been permissible, under the bill's terms, at a kindergarten teacher's discretion, this would be in addition to and not instead of Estonian, while Estonian instruction should still have been provided "at least to an extent".
The bill would overall have updated kindergarten and childcare facilities in other ways also, and would have replaced the current Preschool Child Care Institutions Act with a completely fresh piece of legislation.
The provision of support services, teachers' qualifications, the involvement of the board of trustees, the teaching of Estonian in Russian-language kindergartens and getting rid of wait-lists for kindergartens were also covered, while a kindergarten assistant teacher would have been required to have held a secondary education and the relevant professional qualifications.
Parents would have received feedback on the allocation of a kindergarten place within two months of applying for a place, and considerations such as the existing attendance of a sibling and the distance from a child's home would also have been taken into account when offering places, while parents would have continued to have been permitted to express a preference as to which kindergarten their child might attend.
Other provisions included greater cooperation between local government and privately-run kindergartens, fees at private kindergartens would have been capped and a more inclusive education would have been implemented, along with more flexibility in the organization of playgroups.
Some alterations to how kindergartens were run from a financial perspective, including an enhanced role for boards of trustees, were also included.
Legislation in Estonia requires three readings at the Riigikogu, with substantive amendments possible between first and second reading, and a majority at the 101-seat chamber needing to vote in favor.
Editor: Andrew Whyte