Church and state: public versus parochial schools

I would like to spend a little time on the sorry state of Hungarian education, which is in the midst of a complete make-over.

I don’t want to go into the details of this so-called educational reform. Suffice it to say that critics claim that Hungarian education is heading backwards, to the time prior to the 1984 educational reform. In that year the rigid Hungarian educational system was loosened and teachers received quite a bit of freedom to adjust the curriculum to the needs of the pupils. The current reform will force teachers to follow a rigid curriculum, making it more inflexible than education was in the last years of the Kádár regime. The choice of textbooks will be reduced. Occasionally one hears that in fact there will be only one official textbook per course that all students will have to use. Rózsa Hoffmann’s ideal is a “national minimum of knowledge” that all Hungarian citizens will be expected to acquire. Such uniformity can be obtained only if teachers use the same official texts.

Another worrisome development is the nationalization of all schools that are not already in the hands of the churches. Until now public schools were run by the localities and supervised by elected school boards. After nationalization, which is already in the works, schools will be run from the ministry. Even the appointments of principals and teachers will be determined in Budapest.

But here I would like to concentrate on another development that has been gradual but lately has greatly accelerated: the acquisition of public schools by the churches. Prior to 1948, the year of the nationalization of schools, most schools were parochial and most of the parochial schools were Catholic. Prior to World War I 80% of elementary schools, 64% of gymnasiums, and 59% of middle schools were in the hands of the churches. After the war, because of border changes, the churches’ role in education only increased. By 1920 86% of elementary schools were parochial. Despite the government’s efforts to establish new state schools, the situation barely changed. There were cities where there was no choice: all the high schools were in the hands of the Catholic Church. If the Orbán government is around for another six years, the situation might be similar to the state of affairs before 1948.

Calvinist church and school, Geszteréd / panoramio

It was wrong before 1948 and it would be wrong in 2012 or 2016. A secular state can’t allow the education of its citizens to be taken over by the churches. The education the Catholic Church provided before 1948 was inadequate for the needs of the modern world. These schools might have produced graduates with some classical knowledge, but they also produced citizens who had been steeped in conservatism. If that was the case between the two world wars it is especially true today.

After the change of regime in 1990 there was an agreement between the churches and the state that a certain number of their schools would be gradually returned to them. My former high school is slated to be one of them. I spent six years of my life there. Four fairly happy and two miserable ones. I’m sorry to say that I passed the two miserable ones under the watchful eyes of Notre Dame nuns. Thus, the very idea that this school will again be in the hands of the Catholic Church doesn’t fill me with joy.

The schools the churches are acquiring nowadays were not necessarily in church hands prior to 1948. The local governments willingly give away their schools for two reasons. One is the high cost of running a school and the relatively little money they receive from the central government for this purpose. A second reason is that at least some mayors and town councils want to escape the nationalization of their schools. Instead they sign over the running of their schools for a certain number of years to a church.

The Orbán government that a couple of years ago seemed to have looked on these transfers approvingly apparently now finds this trend worrisome. Lately there have been signs that the government would like to put an end to this development. Why?

First of all, one must understand that it doesn’t cost a church anything to run a school.  All schools, including parochial ones, receive a certain amount of money from the central government depending on the size of the student body. So, the churches are in a wonderful position. They can decide on the spirit of the school, including its religious orientation, school uniform, and so on, without these privileges costing them a penny. I should add here that in the past twenty years or so the churches managed to get a higher per capita subsidy than non-parochial schools.  It was Fidesz-KDNP that was loudest in demanding more and more money; the socialist-liberal government, in fear of further alienating the churches, gave in.

But now Fidesz-KDNP is no longer in opposition. Today they are the ones who have to pay the bills that result from the churches’ successful financial negotiations of the past. If this process continues, the state’s burden of running a school system in which parochial schools have a greater and greater share will be higher than before. And  given the state of the national coffers, the Orbán government can ill afford such a luxury.

Perhaps this is the reason for a surprise amendment to the education bill. Today a Fidesz MP who in private life is an elementary school teacher said that he would like to include a paragraph about the circumstances under which a church can take over a public school. His amendment stipulates that before such a transfer takes place at least half of the parents and students over the age of 18 would have to agree to the change.

Sounds like something a decent democratic government would propose. But I’m afraid it is not Fidesz’s democratic impulses that dictated this amendment but financial necessity. Whatever the reason, I for one would be very happy if the amendment were approved.


  1. “A secular state can’t allow the education of its citizens to be taken over by the churches.”

    The question is this: is Hungary at this time a secular state?

  2. Is dogmatic adherence to the idea of a secular state really such a great idea in the circumstances that prevail in Hungary? After all we are witnessing the centralisation of the hiring and firing in state schools, putting them under the full control of the Ministry. Is the Fidesz run Ministry going to appoint school principals from other parties or groups in society? I doubt it; the state “secular” system will basically be a Fidesz run one. It will focus on promoting the “national” values of the Hungarian nation.

    The church run schools will be the only ones where dissent from the party line will be allowed. Is it really such a good idea to abolish them?

    It seems that cash strapped municipalities are actually quite keen to offload schools to the churches. I noticed a big fuss in one of the Jobbik websites about a school being given to Hit Gyülekezete, the “zionist sect”. I doubt that they will appoint a Fidesz party man as principal.

  3. Smithborough :

    It seems that cash strapped municipalities are actually quite keen to offload schools to the churches. I noticed a big fuss in one of the Jobbik websites about a school being given to Hit Gyülekezete, the “zionist sect”. I doubt that they will appoint a Fidesz party man as principal.

    Well, Hit Gyülekezete wouldn’t because they side with the liberals and they are pro-Israeli. But fear not, the government will not allow too many schools to go the Hit Gyülekezete. Just today Orbán announced that no church should get more schools than their size in the population. Apparently some MPs in the Fidesz parliamentary caucus complained about a school that is supposed to go to Hit Gyülekezete.

  4. The problem with Fidesz and the church is that they believe they live in the same world that everyone lived in 50, 100, 200.. years ago. Today, if you use email, you’re over the age of 28 as those under that age just don’t use it. I don’t send my kids email ‘cos they’ll never read it. Kids attention is now dominated and fragmented by the bombardment of information coming from all over the place…. a teacher is now just one more source of information having to compete with all of the other sources of information. My kids have now learned almost as much from (scholarly) youtube and google as they have from school. With so many sources of information I’m finding that they kids are questioning things more often and they can and do know more about certain subjects than the teachers do. The teachers are feeling the pressure from this seemingly chaotic situation. They used to be in control and to great extent they still are but that control is weakening quite quickly. My daughters head room teacher setup a facebook page for the class. The class quickly setup their own that excluded the teacher which we’ve been monitoring. What we’ve been witnessing is but one data point but I can’t imagine that is unique. I’ve no idea where this is all going but I doubt that Fidesz or the church is going to have very much control over it.

  5. @LwiiH:

    A good teacher is a lot more than just another source of information, but that of course,
    depends on the teacher..ditto for parents-

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