Hungarian government creates the legal framework for segregating Roma children in schools

The government has already waged a full scale attack on fundamental rights and democratic institutions with the Fourth Amendment to the Fundamental Law, Hungary’s new constitution. Now an amendment to the law on equal opportunity will open the door for segregation in schools under the paper-thin veneer of positive discrimination. The HCLU opposes both the constitutional provision which allows discrimination and the amendment to the equal opportunity law based on the former.

The Roma remain the most disadvantaged minority, existing on the edge of society in Hungary. Their situation today is the most severe social issue, as the Roma continue to suffer from anti-Gypsyism in every aspect of life including being discriminated against by authorities. Racist violence against the Roma is one of the most worrying human rights questions of our times.

The problems could be best addressed with public policies that integrate the Roma in the education system and provide education of adequate quality. However, Hungary’s system of education is one of the most segregated, unable to close the achievement gap due to wide differences in student’s family, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. 

Segregation in schools violates the right to equal treatment as promulgated in the 2003 law on equal opportunity. The Chance for Children Foundation has repeatedly won cases based on this law, enforcing provisions banning segregation.

Nevertheless, two-thirds of Roma children attend segregated schools or classes which provide significantly lower quality education than non-Roma children receive. For generations Roma children have been systematically classified as disabled and sent to schools for students with special needs. This was found by the European Court of Human Rights in a January 2013 decision against Hungary.

The solution to segregation requires a) real efforts from politicians beyond outlawing segregation, b) strong commitment from the government based on equal human dignity, c) respect for evidence from scientists and experts, and d) a strategy to intervene rooted in professional and societal consensus.  Key to this is respect for equal dignity within a political community, inclusion, and solidarity all of which would imply an education system based on integration and inclusion.

Integration of Roma children in the education system and the spread of innovative pedagogic methods came to a sudden stop after the 2010 elections.  The government is now questioning again the hegemony of an integrated system. The State Secretary for Education stated in a press release: “The Hungarian Government starts with the assumption that closing the achievement gap for the disadvantaged, including the Roma, requires assessing and addressing the problems facing an individual. We therefore support every institution which enables students with disadvantaged backgrounds to close the achievement gap, even if the institution only educates Roma children.”

Evidently the government believes in “closing the social gap”, a concept that appears in the title of the Hungarian Roma strategy (although translated into English as “social inclusion”) but which is unknown in EU jurisprudence or social policy. First, the government introduced the concept in the Fundamental Law with the Fourth Amendment then introduced a bill before the Parliament to amend the law on equal opportunity with this concept. Amending the clause on positive discrimination with the notion of “closing the social gap” creates the opportunity for schools that are seen to close the social gap based on subjective criteria to evade the ban on segregation.

The vague definition of “closing the social gap” in the Fundamental Law evokes dead-end concepts. In response to protests by the press and civic organizations, the above cited official press release confirmed the intent of the Government, announcing the legality of the Roma’s segregated education based on this concept.

The HCLU opposes the constitutional provision which allows discrimination and finds extremely dangerous the law and the picture of a society it creates which legitimizes the otherwise illegal and unconstitutional discrimination under the paper-thin veneer of positive discrimination. Furthermore, our organization opposes the amendment to the law on equal treatment that increases the exclusion of the already neglected Roma.

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