school segregation

Zoltán Balog, who is in charge of Roma integration, fights for segregation

In the last two years I wrote a couple of times about school segregation in Hungary. Of course, segregation along ethnic lines is illegal in Hungary and after 2003, when the law on equal treatment was enacted, the ministry of education managed to achieve some success in school integration. One can read more about these efforts in a blog I wrote in January 2013.

In 2010 Zoltán Balog, then only an undersecretary in charge of the so-called Roma strategy, assumed the job of integrating and “converging” Hungary’s sizable Roma population. Moreover, during Hungary’s presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first six months of 2011, the Hungarian government took upon itself the creation of a Roma program for the entire European Union.

From the beginning I noted Balog’s reluctance to follow the earlier Hungarian government’s strategy of integration. There were also signs that Balog, realizing the enormousness of the task, wanted to dump the problem on the churches. He made frequent references to his belief that religious communities are best equipped to handle the special issues of the Hungarian Roma. What happened behind the scenes I have no idea, but most churches were not willing to take over what should have been the job of the government. On the whole Hungarian churches said “no thanks.”

My other suspicion was that in his heart of hearts Balog does not believe in school integration. He is convinced that special Gypsy classes enable students to catch up with their non-Roma contemporaries–separate to become equal. Based on countless studies we know that this is a misguided notion. But it seems that Fidesz politicians cannot easily be convinced by hard data or evidence.

If someone had not noticed earlier that Balog is no fan of integration, it became absolutely clear this spring when at a meeting of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) he argued that there can be no uniform Roma strategy for all EU countries and therefore the European Commission has to be “more responsive” even as he stressed that the Roma issue “is a European responsibility.”

Zoltán Balog, the defender of quality education of Roma children

Zoltán Balog, the defender of quality education for Roma children

The clash between Balog and civil organizations dealing with Roma issues came to a head in Nyíregyháza where there was a segregated school for Roma children which was closed in 2007. However, came the 2010 municipal election and with it a new Fidesz mayor who convinced the Greek Catholic church that had taken over the school in the interim to reopen the segregated school only about 1.5 km from a new modern school that served the majority of the students. It was at this point that an NGO, Esélyt a Hátrányos Helyzetű Gyerekeknek Alapítvány (CFCF), sued both the city and the church.

After a careful consideration of the facts and listening to experts the court decided in favor of the foundation. At that time Balog went so far as to testify on behalf of the Greek Catholic church. He supported segregation which he called a “tender loving attainment process.” When the church lost the case, Balog was furious and made no secret of his feelings: “this verdict only increases my fighting spirit. We will continue to fight for a good, decent verdict which is good for the children.”

How strongly Balog felt about this particular case is demonstrated in a press release his ministry issued on November 6, the day the appellate court issued its ruling affirming the lower court’s decision. This press release is a perfect example of the double talk this government specializes in. The final verdict in the case is” highly regrettable because many children will be deprived of a superior education.” Of course, “the Government of Hungary condemns segregation which is forbidden by Hungarian law. If segregation can be proven we will do everything to ensure its discontinuance.” But this time, it seems, segregation is a good thing.

In fact, twelve days after the appellate court’s decision the government moved to change the 2003 law. The proposed amendment says that in the case of schools run by churches or in schools serving national minorities the minister–in our case Zoltán Balog–can issue a decree that will allow segregated classes. Surely, for the sake of superior education. The Orbán government is trying to integrate by segregating, a solution that is a time-tested failure.

CFCF issued a statement in which they question the legality of this amendment. They claim that the 2003 law is protected by the Fundamental Law’s Article  I(3): “A fundamental right may only be restricted to allow the application of another fundamental right or to protect a constitutional value, to the extent absolutely necessary, proportionate to the objective pursued and with full respect for the essential content of such fundamental right.” Therefore Balog’s amendment is unconstitutional. CFCF somewhat naively sent this statement to all members of parliament, asking them not to vote for the amendment “in its present form.” The voting robots will not oblige, which means that the case will most likely end up in the European Court of Human Rights.