Educators reject Roma proposal
Critics: Decrees won't keep segregated students out of special education
Posted: February 16, 2011
Lucie Panovská says she's tired of people calling the Czech Republic racist.
While the Czech Republic continues to place more Roma children in special education schools than any other country in the world, critics say two decrees recently developed by the Education Ministry will do little to reverse the trend.
Nearly 90 percent of students in the country's special education schools are Roma, a number that consistently draws international criticism, but proposals offered by Minister Josef Dobeš to address the issue have educators and activists from both sides of the argument uniting in their sound rejection of the proposals as insufficient.
"It's tinkering with a system that is fundamentally flawed," said Rob Kushen, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) in Budapest.
The proposed amendments, which namely require parents to sign a consent form before their children are put into special education schools, are being derided as an anti-climactic end to a three-year wait while the government was tasked by a European Court of Human Rights ruling to address the systematic placement of Roma into schools with less intensive curriculums.
November 2007 The European Court of Human Rights finds the Czech Republic has violated human rights conventions for segregation
January 2010 Former Education Minister Miroslava Kopicová discourages placement of Roma children indiscriminately into special education schools and is met with opposition
March 2010 The Czech School Inspection Authority announces it will fine 34 practical schools for illegally enrolling students, mostly Roma. The penalties are never enforced
March 2010 The National Action Plan on Inclusive Education is adopted, with no concrete targets for desegregation or funding. The plan is never implemented
April 2010 Public defender of rights issues a statement condemning the high number of Roma children in special education
May 2010 The new government takes office, and desegregation is not made a priority in the Government Program Declaration
October 2010 Minister advisers in charge of inclusive education resign due to government inaction
November 2010 Activists call for the government to honor ECHR ruling
February 2011 Government unveils new decrees requiring "informed consent" to place children in special education
According to ERRC statistics, 5,000 Czech Roma children who have no learning disabilities are in special education. In 2007, the ERRC found Roma were 27 times more likely to be placed in special education schools than non-Roma.
Experts agree that at least at one point, Roma children were placed into special education indiscriminately to separate them from other students. But now, there is divergence about why the problem persists.
" 'Integration' as a word is a beautiful thing," said Lucie Panovská, a Prague-based special education teacher, whose class of 20 consists of 19 Roma students. "But these children are dealing with upbringings that put them years behind other students.
"I am not racist, and I'm tired of people pointing to the Czech Republic as a racist country. If I was racist, I wouldn't have dedicated 10 years of my life to teaching these children. These children are not stupid; they are developmentally behind other children, because when they are brought up, they are not talked to, they aren't told how to hold a pencil or told that a baby dog is called a puppy."
The Education Ministry has refused to release the decrees to journalists or NGOs, but described them as draft legislation that covers a "broad framework" regarding admission to special education schools. Several organizations managed to obtain the proposed amendments - which should be effective by Sept. 1 - and spoke with The Prague Post about their contents.
The centerpiece of the proposal is the so-called informed consent form, a document that requires a parent's signature, stating they have been sufficiently informed about the differences between placing their children in special education as opposed to mainstream schooling. That paper alone, without the advice of medical or education experts, can determine in what type of school a child is placed.
"To demonstrate that a legal representative informed the parents truthfully and to the required extent will be very difficult," said Klára Laurenčíková, who worked as deputy education minister in the two previous governments and then as an adviser before resigning last year because of her dissatisfaction with the ministry's Roma integration policies. She added a survey of schools showed the majority of directors of special education schools have in the past failed to inform parents about the ramifications of putting their child in a special education curriculum.
"It's clear students in special education have limited educational opportunities," said Jana Straková, an education reform researcher and a lecturer at Charles University. However, she added, Roma parents may opt to put their child in special education out of fear. "Parents may feel special education teachers have a better understanding of their problems," she said.
The consequences can swing another way, according to Panovská. Some parents, she said, may place their children in mainstream schools despite their disabilities because of social stigma.
Activists and some educators also disagree on the best practices for properly educating disadvantaged children.
"Both the lobby of special education teachers and the people in NGOs want what's best for Roma students," Straková said. "But the main difference is special education teachers think it's best for them to be educated outside of the mainstream because they are more sensitive to the children's needs, and they won't be bullied, while other people believe they should all be educated in the same mainstream schools."
The ERRC has maintained the only acceptable outcome would be facilities that incorporate both special education and normal curriculum.
"The fundamental objective is to get Roma children out of these special schools and into mainstream schools where they are taught a full curriculum with their non-Roma peers that prepare them for higher education and employment," Kushen said.
But Panovská argued students who need special attention are worse off if they are integrated into a full curriculum.
"It's not about white or brown. If a child with a learning disability is integrated with normal children, he will never feel like he can succeed," she said.
Instead of forced integration, Panovská said a system needs to be developed that requires children to attend a preschool that allows them to equally develop the skills they need to be successful in school.
Despite theoretical differences, the common discontent lies in what both educators and activists see as band-aid legislation.
"Segregation, which is now the biggest problem in Czech education, reflects the local segregation in our cities," said Karel Holomek, chairman of the Society of Roma in Moravia. "I do not have confidence in the ability and willingness of Dobeš's program of inclusive education."
Cat Contiguglia can be reached at
Tags: special education, education, schools, roma, romany, gypsy, discrimination, minorities, ethnic, josef dobes, education ministry, decrees, racism, integration, policy, segregation, czech republic, czech.
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