A new book published by the Roma Education Fund and Central European University Press, Ten Years After: A History of Roma School Desegregation in Central and Eastern Europe, gives many theoretical and practical insights into the subject. As the book makes abundantly clear, school desegregation is no less necessary and no less difficult now than in the 1990s when the problem was first addressed.

For me the most valuable part of the book are the interviews with practitioners of desegregation in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. The “10 years” of the title alludes to the start of the first serious school desegregation program in these countries, in Vidin, Bulgaria. Like most, if not all other desegregation initiatives, this one would not have happened had not a Romani rights group proposed and run it. In the first year of the program run by the Drom organization, 300 children were transferred from the school in their Romani neighborhood to schools in the main part of town. By the third year 700 children, or 70 percent of children in the neighborhood, were attending mainstream schools. According to Drom the children have done well. Only about 2 percent drop out each year; two in three achieve good or very good grades, and one in 10 gets excellent grades; and about 30 graduates of the program have gone on to attend colleges or universities.

One of many obstacles to closing segregated schools was, paradoxically, funding from donors whose stated goal was the improvement of Romani education, the Bulgarian Romani activist and former deputy director of the Roma Education Fund Rumyan Russinov says in his interview in the book.

“Unfortunately, some of the donors do not believe that Roma children are capable for mainstream education. The way they express this view is to emphasize the specificity of Roma culture,” he says. Another problem is that improvements accomplished with donors’ help are more conspicuous in schools with large numbers of Romani pupils, “due to the fact that these schools are almost deserted by the state and even minor improvements can be easily seen.”

Other problems stem from the lack of institutional support for desegregation. Marius Taba and Andrew Ryder note in their chapter on the role of governments and NGOs, “… none of the countries in this review have produced anti-discrimination laws with specific positive obligations for public institutions to ensure the implementation of the equal treatment principle; neither do they stipulate specific positive obligations to eliminate and prevent segregation in education.”

Public bodies at all levels have also been reluctant to implement recommendations and laws to close down segregated schools, and national governments have tried to circumvent binding legal rulings, as when the Czech Republic promised to close remedial schools with grossly disproportionate numbers of Romani students, but in effect simply renamed them.

There have been successes as well. In Bulgaria, the number of students in remedial schools has tumbled by two-thirds since 2000, to about 3,000 in the 2009-2010 school year. Roma children are however, still overrepresented in the remedial schools, a problem across all the countries in our region. In Hungary, the country with the most robust legal framework backing desegregation programs, “several tens of thousands of Roma students have been successfully integrated into mainstream schools,” the book’s editor Iulius Rostas notes.

In one of the more positive statements in the book, Russinov observes that children who get out of segregated schools find far broader horizons.

“Some of them will be good students, others will not. But all of them will see themselves as part of society, as equally valuable persons. Before, they used to have the understanding that the ghetto is their place. Now they dream of becoming doctors and lawyers. Some of them will not become doctors, but the first thing is to dream, that is why I say their horizon has opened. Then they will not need our efforts to desegregate their children; they will do it for themselves.”

None of the interviewees seems hopeful that that kind of progress can be achieved in less than a generation or so. Russinov lists the main tasks ahead:

“Despite the progress made, there are several things which we did not manage to accomplish. First, we did not manage to move the process into the hands of the state – it still very much depends on the efforts of the Roma NGOs. Second, we did not manage to broaden the scope of donors who support the process. And third, due to limited resources, we were not able to scale up the projects to involve more children.”

Proponents of desegregation “need to adapt their discourses and strategies to the new environment after EU accession,” Rostas writes. EU accession means far less stringent monitoring of the new members’ anti-discrimination programs, because the union lacks punishment mechanisms, not to mention the political will to punish countries for not following up on promises made during the accession process. (The question remains whether those promises were ever realistic to begin with, or were ever taken seriously by either the candidates or the EU.)

For desegregation activists, Rostas continues, “[t]he necessity of increasing their coalition capacity – to attract support from other social actors like the disability rights movement, the immigrant rights movement, and other vulnerable groups – in order to reform the educational systems to become more inclusive is crucial.”

Photo: Escorted by Drom organization staff, children from the Nov Pat neighborhood in Vidin wait to board the bus that will take them to their new school, in this photo from the early days of the Vidin desegregation campaign. Source: Drom

Ky Krauthamer

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

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