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Former education minister to current incumbent: Get the strike ended this week

From left, Tõnis Lukas, host Andres Kuusk, and Minister of Education Kristina Kallas, on Wednesday night's edition of 'Esimene stuudio.'
From left, Tõnis Lukas, host Andres Kuusk, and Minister of Education Kristina Kallas, on Wednesday night's edition of 'Esimene stuudio.' Source: ERR

A political resolution on the ongoing teachers' strike would include a decision on whether funding earmarked for new school buildings should be rerouted to provide the sought after teacher pay rise, Minister of Education Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200) says.

Kallas made her remarks while appearing on Wednesday evening's edition of ETV politics show "Esimene stuudio," where she was joined by opposition MP and former education minister Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa).

Lukas found taking the funds from the school building program to be infeasible, but urged the current incumbent to find the €10 million needed to hike teacher wages sufficiently for their union to call of the strike, and this week where possible.

Kallas said: "It's not really the case that teachers' wages can be boosted solely by putting more funds into the system."

"If we take a look at how much of Estonian taxpayers direct towards education out of the overall output, well this is no small sum. Examining further shows that we spend disproportionately highly on investments into education in fact," the minister went on.

"We have erected plenty of new [school] houses in recent years, and this expense has made it problematic to hike teacher wages," the minister added.

"This is a point of politics: Do we continue with the drive towards newer and more luxurious school buildings, or do we instead accept that we will make do with the school facilities that we have. Some of these date back to the Soviet era, yet we would [in this scenario] prefer to direct this money towards teachers salaries. This is the crux of the matter," Kallas went on.

Several new state high schools (Riigigümnaasium) are under development in Estonia.

The minister added that any political agreement must first and foremost be reached with local governments, and these for the most part have investment money at their disposal.

Tõnis Lukas was critical of this line, saying: "When a picture has been built up whereby the school network is organized that all the funding is ploughed into concrete, and then we transfer it to human resources, yet in reality, converting this into wage funds is not viable."

Another piece of the jigsaw is the plight of rural schools, some of which have faced closure, Lukas went on.

"If we say to the owners of small schools that we will now close all 20 rural schools, leaving us a balance of 'concrete' money and wage money, well that's not a way of gaining anything either."

"We have our sparsely populated areas; we cannot compare the density of our school network with that of other countries. Without a doubt, we place a relatively large proportion of GDP in the education system, and this will remain as funding in the future too. We cannot significantly reduce that," Lukas, who was education minister in the Reform-SDE-Isamaa administration of 2022-2023, went on.

Kallas emphasized that any agreement along the lines of what she had outlined would not at this time involve any school closures.

She also says that the situation has improved, as evidenced by the fact that other cabinet ministers have started to talk about education reforms.

"A substantial proportion of these reforms related of course to ministerial-level decisions. However, since now the focus is still very much on education, every minister's dream is to be able to attract the Prime Minister's interest towards their reforms, within the cabinet."

"Hence the content of reforms is also attracting lot of attention today, with the government. This also represents a major achievement for those striking. And if reforms are attracting governmental attention, then the decisions and agreements to carry these out will also originate there (ie. with the government – ed.)"

Tõnis Lukas meanwhile said that the coalition had been late in reacting to the strike. "Besides which it seems to me that all of the three parties have their part to play in this. The Reform Party wants to go down in history as the custodian solely of the watchword of balanced budgets, and only as such. The Social Democrats are also satisfied with teaching from the sidelines and tweaking the minister of education's tail a little, so that she won't negotiate too successfully. And then Kristina Kallas is also in the role in which it is as if everyone else is interfering."

"There is more than a whiff of the aura of martyrdom going on here. All three of you bluffed together – on the pledges on teachers' salaries. And the three of you actually also agreed on the current state budget, which is now requiring a re-work," Lukas continued.

Lukas added that he supports the education minister at least if their goal is truly to end the strike, entering an unprecedented fourth day on Thursday, via a specific pact.

Lukas said: "Teachers being on strike is not a normal societal situation," adding that the quest to find the €10 million estimated as needed to hike wages sufficiently to stave off the strike's continuation, " is actually a ridiculous obstacle to a truce in the labor force."

"So just do that, and wrap up this strike, this week," he told Kallas.

Lukas also said that the education minister should inform the prime minister that ditching a tax loophole would obtain €400 million which could go towards education.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: 'Esimene stuudio,' presenter Andres Kuusk

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