Around the Bloc, TOL’s daily news aggregator, reported yesterday on research in Britain that should demolish any lingering doubts over the hypocrisy of the Czech Republic’s segregated education policy.

I don’t know if the Czech human-rights ombudsman read the British report, but it’s interesting that at about the same time, his office said it had begun a research project to

“overturn or confirm the criticism of the Czech Republic for the high number of Romani pupils in schools meant for the education of the disabled.”

As we and many others have pointed out time and again, the Czechs, along with Slovakia, Hungary, and to a lesser degree other countries in the region, have for years followed a totally indefensible practice of steering Romani children to “special schools” for the educationally backward. Roma are massively overrepresented in these schools compared to “white” children (two examples of many: 20 percent of Polish Romani children are in special schools; 35 percent of children in the equivalent Czech schools are Roma; see below).

Educators claim that Romani children need special attention for any number of reasons. Their family circumstances have not prepared them for learning, they are less likely to attend nursery school than other children, they may not speak the majority’s language well when they start school, etc. There is some merit to these arguments, but the fact is that educators have not shown that special schools do a better job than mainstream schools at overcoming these obstacles, and far worse, educators and the general public collude in perpetrating a system that is designed – from all appearances – not to help these children succeed in a white-dominated society but rather to keep them out of sight.

So cheers rang out in 2005 when the Czech government announced the end of the special schools, shamed by the barrage of criticism from the foreign media, EU, Amnesty International and others. Cheers were heard again in 2007 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Czech Republic had violated the rights of several Romani young people by assigning them to special schools. The court sided with the plaintiffs’ argument that Czech authorities had thereby discriminated against them by denying the right to education.

What happened then was, depending on your point of view, an exercise either in blatant cynicism or craven fear. The Czech elites might have taken courage from the example of the United States, where dedicated educators and citizens helped dismantle segregated education following the Supreme Court’s milestone Brown ruling which ended segregated schools. Instead, they took a cowardly course, knowing the furious reaction from white parents should more than a token Roma or two be admitted to their children’s schools. So they simply replaced the word “special” in school names with the word “practical.”

The irony here is that “practically,” nothing has changed for the children that attend these schools. This was brought out in a report last year by the Czech Schools Inspectorate. The agency said that in the 2009-10 school year, 15,894 children were attending the former special schools and of these, 10,842, or 68 percent, were considered to have mild mental disability (lehkým mentálním postižením). Of those, Romani children comprised fully 35 percent, and up to half in some regions. (The report does not say how the “Romani” children were identified. Presumably, on the basis of their appearance, since ethnic labels for individuals are not supposed to be used by state agencies. As the ombudsman’s office says, when its representatives do research in schools, they “will note the number of pupils who look like Roma and would thus be treated as Roma by the majority.”)

The school inspectorate boasted that the “traditional very high level of education for pupils categorized as having mild mental disability was preserved in the former special schools.”

However, these schools focus

“solely on high quality special care; as a rule they do not support the possibility of integrating pupils into mainstream education.”

After all the criticism, the multiple pieces of evidence of what amounts to a conspiracy to deny this country’s most deprived people of anything beyond the most basic education, little has changed. The situation today is probably hardly better than in 1999, when the European Roma Rights Center issued a comprehensive report on the special schools. That report pointed out an “essential double-speak” about the schools. On the one hand, they are “legally defined as established to cater to the needs of mentally handicapped children. On the other hand, numerous educators and the [Education] Ministry itself regards [sic] them as appropriate for the education of Roma. The effect of this dissonance in the two conceptions of the institution itself is that Romani children are branded as intellectually deficient by dint of their placement in remedial special schools, and are educated as if they were mentally handicapped.”

The ERRC went on to say, “A child who has passed successfully through remedial special school has extremely limited opportunities in secondary education.” Those opportunities were generally limited to vocational schools offering training in low-paying trades. University education was virtually impossible then for graduates of special schools and is probably just as far out of reach for the youngsters leaving the practical schools today.

It will be very interesting to see what the ombudsman reports.

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

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