Hungarian Teachers Protest Against Orban Education Overhaul

  • Protesters demand less centralization, more pay for teachers
  • Teachers spurn government dialog offer, plan Feb. 13 protest

Thousands of Hungarian teachers kicked off protests against Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s overhaul of the school system after a centralization push and the deepest cuts to education spending in Europe angered faculty and left schools short of basics including chalk.

As many as 5,000 people demonstrated on Wednesday evening in Miskolc, a city 180 kilometers (110 miles) northeast of Budapest, where disgruntled faculty at a high school were first to go public with their demands, HVG.hu news website reported. Protesters there and in 10 other cities urged the government to return autonomy to teachers, schools and municipalities in matters from financing to the curriculum.

“Schools have no money after the government cut off funding, and even school principals are powerless since their autonomy was taken away,” Ildiko Tokaji, a 50-year-old primary school English teacher, said at a protest in Budapest. “Teachers have to focus on administrative duties that have nothing to do with teaching, while the kids are overburdened with too many classes.”

While Orban’s party had more support in January than all of the opposition parties combined, according to a Tarki poll, the demonstrations showed simmering anger against some of his cabinet’s measures. Protesters oppose centralization, a recurring theme for Orban, who has amassed more power than any of his predecessors since the end of communism. Since taking office in 2010, his ruling Fidesz used its parliamentary majority to change the constitution and appoint allies to head institutions, including the constitutional court, in policies that are now mimicked by the new Polish government.

Widespread Discontent

Almost 30,000 people -- including parents and teachers at hundreds of schools -- signed an online protest petition in support of the Miskolc-based Herman Otto high school. Faculty published an open letter to the government in November complaining of excessive centralization, overworked and underpaid teachers and overburdened students. An internal state study had confirmed the complaints.

While Orban’s changes were aimed at addressing discrepancies in pupils’ performance across the country, Human Resources Minister Zoltan Balog, who oversees education, said in an RTL Klub TV interview last month that the government had “overdone” centralization and is open to loosening it. He called for dialog with teachers, who until now have rejected his invitation. Teachers plan a national demonstration in Budapest for Feb. 13.

Hungarian education spending plunged by more than 20 percent between 2008 and 2012, the most among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to a survey. Fellow OECD members and regional peers Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have all boosted spending in that period.

In neighboring Slovakia, more than 11,000 teachers from about 700 schools held a strike on Jan. 25 demanding that the government boost teachers’ pay and increase education spending. Slovakia and Hungary spend the least on education as a proportion of gross domestic product of the OECD members who also are part of the EU, at 3.5 percent and 3.6 percent respectively, according to the 2012 survey. The average spending among OECD EU members was 4.6 percent.

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