Local governments in Harju County that have seen a wave of court actions want the right to decide whether to send children to municipal nurseries or private daycare. The solution could be to lower kindergartens' quality requirements.
The obligation of local governments to ensure kindergarten places was created 20 years ago. In the middle of the previous decade, the Riigikogu decided that children 1.5-3 years of age can also be sent to daycare.
"However, there is a legislative slip-up or shortcoming involved," said Andre Sepp, executive manager of the Harju County Local Governments Association. "The law only allows local governments to offer both types of childcare services with consent from parents."
Parents are not expected to voice this consent in practice. Until recently, few people complained, more so as many simply didn't get a place before the possibility of daycares appeared. Daily Eesti Päevaleht and Vikerraadio reminded in June that it is possible to demand a kindergarten place (instead of daycare – ed.) in court.
Harju County Court has received 38 complaints tied to kindergartens this year, whereas a considerable number of plaintiffs are looking at victories.
"If the shortage of places is acute, the only option is to throw out kids already attending kindergarten to make room for others," Kiili Municipality Mayor Aimur Liiva said, adding that court decisions do not create more kindergarten places. "The problem is systematic, with municipalities surrounding Tallinn struggling and concerned," he said.
Parents giving one another legal advice on social media
Liiva said that it would require 15 new kindergartens to place every child in Harju County. Andre Sepp said that this is not realistic even in light of additional tax revenue from new residents.
"No matter a local government's revenue base, a kindergarten and the investment it requires are hugely expensive," Sepp said, suggesting that the high number of children could also be temporary. "We could develop a surplus of kindergarten places at one point."
However, these arguments are useless in court and do nothing to lift the local government's obligation. Saue Deputy Municipality Mayor Andres Kaarmann said that people who are demanding a kindergarten place do not number that many. Most plaintiffs want the municipality to compensate them for expenses created when their child cannot attend the local kindergarten. People are asking local governments to pay for the difference in the cost of lunches, hobby education and transport.
"There is a group of parents demanding compensation after the fact," Kaarmann added. "People who have voluntarily accepted a daycare place but have now learned there is compensation and asked the local government to provide it."
Parents are taking to social media groups to teach each other how best to protect their rights. It is possible to find drafts of complaints where only a few lines of text need to be swapped out before they can be filed in court. There also class actions, with a total of 57 relevant complaints this year.
"The problem needs to be solved as courts do not construct new kindergarten places," Andre Sepp remarked.
Equating nursery and daycare places seen as solution
Local governments initially wanted the parent's consent component taken out of the law, which idea the Ministry of Education and Research has mulled in the past.
Draft legislation to amend the Primary Education Act recently fell out of Riigikogu proceedings. Tiina Peterson, chief specialist for primary education at the ministry, said that while the bill would have made nursery classes and daycare more similar, some differences were retained.
"As long as the services are different, it is important for parents to consent to replacement," Peterson emphasized, adding that requirements for daycares cannot be hiked as it might hit availability.
Nevertheless, local governments believe that they could be delivered if requirements for the two services were equated. "These services must be on the same footing," Andre Sepp said.
Kaarmann added that it would make no difference to parents whether their kid attends a kindergarten's nursery class or daycare in that case.
But while no one is willing to admit it, lowering the standards of nurseries serves as an alternative to more stringent requirements at daycares. Aimur Liiva said that children 0-3 require safety and to be looked after properly.
"Talking about education services for 0-3-year-olds, suggesting nurseries are somehow very different and have a massive educational component is hardly accurate," he said.
Peterson said that the ministry will return to the bill once the Riigikogu processes amendments that concern Estonian-language education. Until then, local governments will have to find ways to live with the current law.
Editor: Marcus Turovski