Hungarians Protest Orban School Policy as Discontent Grows

  • Teachers, parents, students oppose school centralization
  • Thousands attend Budapest event in relentless rain on Saturday

Thousands of Hungarians demonstrated on Saturday against the centralization of the education system, raising pressure on Prime Minister Viktor Orban to reverse policies that angered faculty and left classrooms short of basics such as light bulbs and chalk.

Protesters huddled under umbrellas in persistent rain and filled the square in front of the Parliament building, the second time teachers and their sympathizers took to the streets this month. Parents, students and others rallied to demand a return of autonomy on matters ranging from school financing to the curriculum.

"Schools have become no more than windowless, airless little basement rooms in the education system, in which children suffocate," Istvan Pukli, the headmaster of the Teleki Blanka high school in central Budapest, told the crowd. "The government only cares that the system works, which is supposed to make education happen, at least on paper. And by the way, we don’t even have enough paper."

Orban’s Fidesz party had more support than all of the opposition parties combined in a January survey by Tarki polling company, but the demonstrations showed simmering resentment among people against some government policies. The cabinet replaced the official in charge of public education last week and held a forum to discuss changes. The measures failed to convince the protesters to back down as many of the groups representing demonstrators boycotted the talks after Orban ruled out any radical overhaul.

Orban’s Centralization

While the administration acknowledged some glitches in its centralized education system, the ruling party has accused the opposition of stoking the protests. The demonstration “has become unnecessary” as the government was in talks with teachers’ groups on every issue they raised, Laszlo Palkovics, who took over as state secretary for education from Judit Bertalan Czunyine a week ago, told reporters on Saturday.

Czunyine’s departure showed the protests had already achieved a "surprising result," according to Tamas Boros, an analyst at Policy Solutions, a research institute in Budapest.

"The resignation of the state secretary is pretty unusual for a Fidesz politician," Boros said on Friday. "The Orban government has never had any intention to discuss its plans with various social and professional groups. The question is whether it would backtrack on its decisions in such an important field as education."

Centralization has been a hallmark of Orban’s policies after he 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.

Disgruntled Teachers

More than 32,000 people -- including parents and teachers at hundreds of schools across Hungary -- have signed an online petition in support of the Herman Otto high school in the northeastern city of Miskolc, where disgruntled faculty first went public with their demands for changes. Teachers published an open letter to the government in November, complaining of excessive centralization, overworked and underpaid teachers and overburdened students. A study by a government institute echoed the complaints.

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. The Hungarian government has since begun to raise teacher salaries and said the protesters are trying to achieve further increases.

“If there’s not enough of even simple supplies like chalk, then obviously there won’t be enough for computing systems and we’ll go back to the education methods of the last century,” Geza Kormos, 72, a retired engineer and instructor from the eastern city of Eger, said at the Budapest demonstration.

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