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Romania’s rural schools are suffering from underfunding, neglect, and the government’s budget priorities.by Claudia Ciobanu 13 January 2010
BRASOV, Romania | A recent renovation brought new furniture and clean, bright bathrooms to Harman village’s Kindergarten No. 1. But the daily maintenance of this four-room school for 87 children in Brasov County is complicated by financial difficulties that are not apparent to the casual visitor, but are all too common to many rural schools in Romania.
“We’re not independent financially,” said Oana Urdea, a teacher at the school.
At the end of 2005, the Romanian government began to transfer the burden of education funding from the central to local governments. The change was supposed to make the chronically underfinanced school system more efficient.
Over the past five years, successive governments have committed to giving 6 percent of GDP to education but have rarely managed to allocate more than two-thirds of that.
The money is not enough and even its allocation is not as flexible as the decentralization legislation makes it sound. The village primary school allocates local funds to the two kindergartens in Harman.
“We draw up a list of needs at the beginning of each academic year and the school grants us a sum of money for those expenses,” Urdea said.
“If an unexpected expense appears during the year – a door or a window gets broken, for example – we need to make another request to the school and we will get the money … sooner or later,” the teacher explained. “The problem is that we can’t really manage our own needs because we don’t have direct access to any funds.”
“We’re in desperate need of a copy machine, for example, but we won’t get it any time soon,” she said.
PRIVATE HELP FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Harman is a relatively well-off village of 4,500 people in Transylvania, the most prosperous part of Romania. But even if the village is not poor, Urdea says it is impossible to get additional funding from parents, a common practice in city schools.
“Some parents even find it hard to keep up with buying notebooks and pencils, the basic necessities,” Urdea said. “I found the same situation in Harman as in another village where I worked, Racos. The parents are often unemployed, so it’s out of the question to ask them for help with buying the necessary materials.”
The decentralization promoted by the government – in line with European Union trends in education – has led to more funds being channeled by municipalities toward larger schools and those that have the ability to attract additional private financial support. Most of those schools are in urban centers.
Although decentralization was intended to make school financing more efficient, the change “is likely to put significant pressure on small village schools, which lack the number of students needed to secure adequate funds under the new system,” according to a 2009 study by an independent body, the EU Monitoring and Advocacy Program. EUMAP monitors the performance of EU states and potential new members in the fields of human rights and the rule of law.
One beneficiary of this reform is Kindergarten No. 66 in Brasov. Located at the foot of the mountains that surround the historic city, the modern school for 270 children has 15 large well-equipped classrooms and special activity rooms. This year, the school received money for a new heating system from the local budget.
The excellent facilities at this publicly-funded neighborhood kindergarten could be taken as an example of the success of Romanian authorities in providing quality education.
In reality, parents’ contributions are vital.
“Romanian legislation requires us to register primarily children from the neighborhood and we do register them, but usually we make sure to also register children from other neighborhoods if we know that the parents are well-off and they could provide funds for the kindergarten,” said Maricica Ganea, a teacher at the kindergarten.
“I rely heavily on funds provided by the parents and on their cooperation. We’ve been buying beds, curtains, and teaching materials with money given as voluntary donations by parents,” Ganea said.
“When our city receives visits from EU officials, they’re brought here to see the successes of Romanian education,” the teacher continued. “And this is indeed a success. But it’s not representative of the educational system in our country.”
Ganea explained that much relies on the teachers’ own ability to gather funds.
“Last year, our kindergarten won 10,000 euros from a foodstuffs producer because I entered my class in an artistic competition and they won,” she said. “It meant many hours of work on my part with the parents’ help.”
Teachers in the countryside are less likely to put in this commitment, the teacher continued.
“From my own experience in working at rural schools, I know that many of us were there on our way to better positions in the cities. We were in the villages for a year or two. We were unhappy with the working conditions, but few of us did anything to improve our material base or to include the parents more in the process of education.”
VANISHING VILLAGE KINDERGARTENS
Teachers in village schools are usually very young, in their first years of professional life, or even unqualified. Teaching positions are distributed on the basis of an annual nationwide examination: teachers with higher scores and more experience go to city schools while those less prepared and younger end up in villages, until they improve their scores in subsequent exams.
According to Mihaela Manole, project coordinator with the Romanian branch of the charity Save the Children, poor teacher motivation is one of the most serious problems in Romanian schools, along with “insufficient investment in education and the excessive politicization of the educational field that translates into incoherent policies that shift with every new government coming to power.”
All these problems are amplified in rural areas.
According to Save the Children, the number of working kindergartens in Romania plummeted from 7,616 in 2003 to 1,731 in 2007. Most of the kindergartens that closed were in rural areas.
In 2007, when a then-record amount of money was allocated from the national budget to education (1.5 billion lei, or 350 million euros, in infrastructure funding for pre-university education), the government blamed local authorities for poor management of funds and inadequate repair works that prevented many rural schools from opening for the new academic year.
“It is unacceptable that six months after the money was allocated from the national budget, not a penny of it was used by some localities,” said then-Minister of Education Cristian Adomnitei.
Rural kindergartens and schools are closing not because of a specific policy decision but rather as one consequence of a series of measures meant to make education financing more efficient.
On top of the decentralization of school financing, in early 2009, the Education Ministry ordered the number of teachers countrywide to be cut. Hundreds of unqualified teachers, especially from rural areas, have been dismissed since, in many instances leading to schools closing down.
Education Minister Ecaterina Andronescu insisted that solutions could be found to keep children in class even with many schools closing. “We cannot simply close the schools and not care what happens to the pupils,” the minister declared in August. “We must see whether there is transportation so they can travel to the larger villages where they can have access to one teacher per classroom.”
REFORM FAVORS THE CITIES
In reality, the closing of rural kindergartens and schools has taken its toll on the educational process. Children of different ages are often forced to follow the same course. In Kindergarten no. 1 in Harman (a village that is home to Romanian and German speakers), 20 German-speaking children of all ages are grouped together because the institution cannot afford the staff for three different age groups. Romanian children usually attend kindergarten (***gradinita***) for three or four years before starting the first grade.
The problem is likely to become more severe in 2010. In December, the newly appointed government announced that 15,000 more teaching jobs will be cut this year. Those affected will be young teachers or pensioners doing extra hours, many of whom work in rural schools.
The other serious consequence is that pupils and teachers in some areas have to travel long distances to get to school, even on foot over mountain paths.
Manole, of Save the Children, said that in addition to such challenges, “Rural schools often lack basic facilities, such as heating during the winter, running water, or working toilets.
“Even more, poverty in rural areas forces families to use children to work in the fields, which takes priority over education.”
The result of all the strains placed on rural kindergartens and schools has been an increase in dropout rates in rural areas. According to the Education Ministry, dropout rates have tripled since the late 1990s among some vulnerable social categories, such as children from rural areas, from poor families in the cities, and Romani children.
The primary-school dropout rate for rural areas tripled from 0.6 percent in the 2000-2001 academic year to 1.8 percent in 2006-2007. More than the percentages, the trend is worrisome to educators.
The new government says it intends to build 700 new kindergartens as an answer to the overcrowding of city schools that has grown worse as birth rates have risen in recent years. But some are skeptical of yet another government promise to spend more money on schools.
“It’s unlikely that they will achieve this much,” said Ganea, the kindergarten teacher from Brasov, echoing comments by commentators and opposition politicians. “And even if they do build new kindergartens, they’ll do it in places like the center of Bucharest or the center of Brasov, where demand for places exceeds supply. This will not do much for rural areas.”
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