The Estonian government will have to find €10.8 million, the cost of ending the teachers' strike, from outside the regular budgeting process, according to Minister of Health Riina Sikkut (SDE).
"Yes, the €10.8 million has to be found," Sikkut said on Wednesday on ETV show "Terevisioon." Sikkut added that the coalition had already agreed on the distribution of funds for education as part of the budget talks in September, and that this seemed like a "nice political compromise," however it did not work for teachers.
"We agreed, but teachers didn't like our deal. And now it's a question of whether to hold a rigid line (and discuss budget issues again in September – ed.) /.../ or whether teachers' pay, getting children back to school and creating long-term security in education is such an important issue that it can be decided outside of the budget. And that is the fundamental dispute," she added.
Asked if the issue could be discussed sooner, Sikkut said that is currently a point of contention. "The Reform Party thinks it cannot, but the Social Democratic Party (SDE) and also Eesti 200, in the form of the minister of education, think it is an issue we should agree on earlier."
"The nuclear dispute over whether these types of decisions can be taken outside the budget negotiations has not been resolved. We are still arguing about it, but just as the finance minister can say before Christmas that he thinks an additional €400 million cannot be raised through tax increases, teachers can also say in the fall that the agreement in the budget and the budget strategy does not suit us," Sikkut added.
"The government will discuss the finance minister's proposals on January 30. However, the teachers are not at the government table. They have to use other methods and a strike is one of them."
Sikkut also admitted that educators lack confidence in the promises made by the government, which is why they are demanding an agreement to be signed regarding their future. "Trust in society, trust in politicians is so low that the government's word is not enough. As a citizen, I am very sorry that the situation is like this. However, this is one of the reasons why the teachers are on strike and why there is a need for more certainty, why there is a need for signatures, for a clear agreement on how teachers' salaries will be increased in the future," she said.
At the same time, the health minister said an agreement is also needed on other education reforms in the future, specifically those concerning the career model for teachers, the differentiation of teachers' salaries and more besides.
Sikkut said that the current debate is very much focused on Estonia's school network. "We cannot compare ourselves with the Netherlands or Belgium. When we have such a low population density, the fact that a child can go to the first six grades close to home is not a question of improving efficiency. Of course, it is cheaper to run a country if all the people move to Tallinn and don't use the roads and only study in big schools. But this is not the Estonia we want," she said.
"And it's more expensive to run it, to provide the best education in the world in the entire education network all over Estonia, in our own little language, as well as being prepared to defend ourselves against a Russian attack. To do this with the tax burden we had 15-20 years ago, I don't think is possible," Sikkut said.
Asked about the health of the governing coalition, however, Sikkut said thinks were good, despite the current controversy. "Isn't governance a peaceful, joyful and stress-free activity performed with great unanimity?" she said. "There are heated debates, there are major disagreements, but the overall health of the coalition is nevertheless good."
Editor: Michael Cole