Archbishopric of Eger

Joint effort of the Hungarian state and the churches to keep some schools segregated

It was about a week ago that I wrote a post about “the growing influence of the Catholic Church in Hungary.” In that post I mentioned that both the Church itself and Catholic lay organizations had acquired schools in Hungary. For example, the Kolping International has taken over at least three schools.

No one knew at that time that a school acquired several months ago by Kolping International in Szászberek (pop. 987) would soon be the focus of a huge controversy as it expanded its “campus” to take over part of the segregated public school of nearby Jászladány.

Jászladány has been in the news off and on since 2000 when the “independent” mayor of the town (pop. 6,000) decided that the single eight-grade elementary school was not big enough for both Gypsy and non-Gypsy children. I might add that according to the official statistics 11% of Jászladány’s population is Roma. So came the ingenious plan of establishing a private school, to be housed in part of the enlarged school building, where students had to pay tuition. The bulk of the expenses, however, were covered by the municipality.  For example, the newer half of the school building was given free of charge to the private foundation that ran the school. The town also allowed the new school to use all of the equipment that had earlier belonged to the public school. There was a door between the two wings of the school building, but it was locked for six solid years.

Those children whose parents could afford the tuition fees went to the good school; the rest, like the Roma, went to the inferior school. The “private school” children received all sorts of privileges. For example, a free lunch regardless of need. They were the first ones to receive free textbooks; the children in the “Gypsy” school got them only once everybody was served in the “private school.” At one point the Open Society Institute offered to pay the fees for those children who wanted to attend the private school. The Institute was told that it had missed the deadline.

Erzsébet Mohácsi, director of CFCF and lawyer for CFCF, Lilla Farkas after the Supreme Court's favorable decision

Erzsébet Mohácsi, director of CFCF, and lawyer for CFCF, Lilla Farkas, after the Supreme Court’s favorable decision

The head of the local Roma organization is an energetic man who soon enough called the attention of Esélyt a Hátrányos Helyzetű Gyermekekért Alapítvány (Foundation for Equal Opportunity of Underprivileged Children), popularly known as CFCF, to the situation in Jászladány. For ten years CFCF fought against the barely disguised segregation in Jászladány, losing one case after the other, until June 2011 when at last the Supreme Court (today the Kúria) ruled in favor of CFCF and Jászsági Roma Polgárjogi Szervezet (JRPSZ), a Roma organization in the area. The court ordered the town to work out a plan to integrate the two schools.

The new mayor, Katalin Drávucz (Fidesz), whose own child attends the “private school,” ostensibly complied with the court order. She began negotiations with the plaintiffs’ representatives to work out the details of the integration of the two schools. But behind their back she also began negotiations with the county’s “government office,” a newfangled institution that is supposed to be the arm of the central government in every county. Her real goal was to avoid the integration of the school in Jászladány.

They came up with a splendid solution: they decided to pass the private school over to Kolping International, which functions under the authority of the Archbishopric of Eger. The idea was to automatically transfer the pupils of the “private school” to the new Kolping Katolikus Általános Iskola. Although negotiations between the town and the “government office” began more than a year ago, the deal materialized only on August 30. Since Szászberek is only 10 km from Jászladány, the deal stipulated that the Szászberek Kolping school will simply “expand” and take over the former “private school” of Jászladány.

This new-old school will not charge tuition, but the Roma parents were not notified of this rather important change. By the time, practically on the day that school opened, the CFCF learned about it, it was far too late. They managed to get in touch with about twenty families, and a handful of children enrolled. The new Catholic school has no more places. As the spokesman for Kolping International said, their first obligation is to the children of the “private school.” Segregation remains intact in Jászladány. With the active participation of the Catholic Church.

And now let’s move back in time to the first months of the Orbán administration. Zoltán Balog, a Protestant minister and now the head of the mega-Ministry of Human Resources, was in charge of Roma integration in the Ministry of Administration and Justice. He often expounded on the plight of the Gypsies and promised all sorts of remedies. These remedies did not, however, include school integration. In his opinion, segregation works to the advantage of the underprivileged, most of whom are Roma. They need special attention to catch up with the other students. Of course, we know that this is a myth. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court declared when rendering its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” And, indeed, the special classes into which Roma children were herded in the past almost guaranteed failure. Balog, however, remains unrepentant. Only recently he repeated this mistaken notion when he sided with the Greek Catholic Church in a suit brought against it by the same CFCF that handled the Jászladány case.

What happened in this instance? In Nyíregyháza there was a school in a largely Roma inhabited section of town that was closed in 2007 because of its blatant segregation. In 2011, however, the new Fidesz administration in town reopened the school and it was given to the Greek Catholic Church. CFCF pointed out that only a couple of bus stops from this segregated school there was another school that is also run by the same Greek Catholic Church. It is a newly refurbished modern school. The Roma children could certainly attend that school. Balog offered himself as a witness on behalf of the Greek Catholic Church which refused to close the segregated school and refused to integrate the Roma children into their modern facilities.

There is more and more criticism of the churches lately because they seem singularly insensitive to social issues. Criticism of the Hungarian Catholic Church has grown especially harsh since the installation of Pope Francis, who has been a spokesperson for the downtrodden. Critics complain about the extreme conservatism of the Catholic hierarchy and point out that their involvement with charity work is minimal. It is quite clear from these two cases that the churches are reluctant to deal with disadvantaged children, Roma or not. And the good minister, Zoltán Balog, advocates keeping the disadvantaged separate from “mainstream” Hungarian children. The state and the churches are working hand in hand to keep segregation alive in the Hungarian public school system.