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  • 2014 : When educational institutions come under the administrative authority of the Churches

Observers attentive to the Hungarian Churches’ involvement in the field of education or social work have recently come to notice a radical change in the statistics. Specifically, over the last three years, there has been unprecedented growth in the number of schools that have been transferred under the supervision of the Churches. In the academic year 2009/2010, which preceded the return of the Democratic Alliance (Fidesz and Christian Democrats) to power, the State directly or indirectly administered 2,133 nursery schools, 2,019 primary schools, 442 vocational schools, 467 vocational secondary schools and 407 secondary schools. Meanwhile, the various Churches administered 139 nursery schools, 194 primary schools, 33 vocational schools, 31 vocational schools and 104 secondary schools. In comparison, during the academic year 2002/2003, there were 3,421 public primary schools and 150 denominational schools. Before the spring 2014 elections, which brought the right-wing government back into power, the number of educational institutions dependent on the Churches increased by more than 50%. For a few years after the change of regime, the Churches provided education for only a few thousand students ; this number has now reached 250,000 (out of a population of 10 million). While some consider that the churches in Hungary are simply “taking hold of the public schools”, the situation is much more complex. The main driving force behind this change in the delegation of services in the field of education is the decision to centralise all schools under the responsibility of municipal/territorial authorities. In accordance with the regulations that came into effect on 1 January 2013, from the point of view of the professional management, all schools administered by territorial bodies would come under the control of the Institut Klebelsberg Managing Centre (KLIK). While in principle this does not bring any fundamental changes in the day-to-day running of the schools, one of the most important powers of the headmasters, namely the appointment and dismissal of teachers, is transferred to the power of the KLIK, while the appointment of headmasters is the responsibility of the Minister of Education. Though the teaching staff, parents and student communities, along with the local municipal council, give their opinion on candidates for the posts, it has only advisory value. In 2013, the schools’ right to self-management was also abolished. However, the transfer under state control only relieved the municipality of the responsibility for staff salaries. The maintenance of buildings and operational costs remained the responsibility of the municipality. The transfer of schools under State control, according to many headmasters - thus agreeing with Zoltan Pokorni, President of the National Assembly’s Educational Commission and a former Minister of Education - has the downside of making proceedings more unwieldy. Every decision now has to be approved by central management, a lengthy process given the hierarchical obstacles. The slightest expenditure requires approval, and thus a lengthy authorisation process, as each school is now managed by two separate entities. The KLIK (established to oversee Hungary’s more than 7 000 general schools, secondary schools, vocational schools and vocational training schools) is responsible for all vocational matters, while the local or territorial governments are responsible for operations. Disagreements arise regarding expenditure, while funds received for operating costs remain very low. The institutions’ loss of autonomy is perceived negatively. Deeming that their role is now reduced to providing the buildings’ maintenance budget, without any real possibility of intervening in the affairs of the school, several local administrations have decided to put the schools under the administration of the Churches. Consequently, local authorities are fully freed of the expenses of running schools. The authorities’ motivation to ’escape’ centralisation was so strong that when the ’historical’ churches did not accept the role of administrator, along with the costs it carried, the local authorities turned to other religious groups. Nonetheless, according to representatives of the main Churches, the various denominations have been forced to turn away many of the proposed facilities. The criteria for accepting these institutions vary depending on the Church involved. The Catholic Church has accepted offers from all over the nation, in some cases saving schools in danger of closure (e.g. a primary school with over 100 Roma children in Pécs). For the Lutheran Church, the main criterion is to have local Lutheran communities already on site, and supporting the transfer initiative and existing project. As for the Reformed Church, it has accepted schools in locations where was already planning to undertake an educational project in the context of a public institution. The transfer of this large number of schools to the administration of the churches is due to rational reasons as well as to biases against the central administration. Through local relations, local politicians and municipalities hope that by transferring schools to a given denomination, they will, at least indirectly, have a say in operations. Because of the legislation on churches and their funding, the prospect confessionalising schools offers some stability. Since the Vatican Agreement (1997), despite differences in views between governments and churches in the field of education, confessional schools have been found to offer a better quality education with more balanced finances. The Church, as administrator, is entitled to additional subsidies provided for by law (in 2013, 7 billion Forint). In addition, the multiple tax breaks and exemptions available help improve the stability and freedom of the schools. In many cases, religious schools are exempted from certain regulatory requirements (appointing leadership, curriculum, textbook selection, etc.) and there is less risk of reorganisation or closure. The significant funding comes with a great deal of freedom. In comparison, the freedom which large private educational institutions enjoy is synonymous with poor financial conditions. As for public schools, the recent centralisation means that both their funding and their freedoms are limited. According to the Hungarian journalist Levente Teleki, the difference between state and church schools is not due to the improvement in the conditions enjoyed by the latter, but to the fact that, while their conditions did not change, the schools’ situation under local government has deteriorated (e.g. teachers’ salaries have stagnated or decreased since centralisation). The transfer of responsibility for educational (or social) institutions also raises problems other than financial. At the press conference held on 4 December 2014, the President of the Hungarian Bishops’ Conference emphasised that he considers it contrary to the religious neutrality of the State if the government or local administrations offer institutions freely to a Church of their choice. In such a case, their decision would determine from which religious environment people or social or educational services can or should benefit.

See the Hungarian article "Egyházi iskolák : menekülés az állam elől".

Rozalia Horvath

D 27 mars 2015    ARozalia Horvath

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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