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In Poland, Fewer Students, and Teachers, Head Back to School

Shrinking enrollments and squeezed budgets lead to the most extensive layoffs in years. Pусская версия

by Wojciech Kosc 30 September 2011

WARSAW | The number of schoolchildren has dropped sharply in Poland over the past two decades. On the other hand, the number of teachers has risen in the past few years, and so have their salaries.

 

Those combined trends are no longer sustainable, say local officials who want to free up money for other uses. As a result, hundreds of the country’s teachers have been fired this year, with more cuts likely next year.

 

Though she still has her job, information technology teacher Edyta Zielinska has seen her hours cut and expects to get the ax at the beginning of the next school year.

 

Zielinska has taught for 16 years. She’s now in Radom, a town of 300,000 about 100 kilometers (63 miles) southeast of Warsaw.

 

“It’s definitely my last year at school," she predicted, " and IT teachers aren’t in demand that much in Radom.”

 

Marek Olszewski, an administrator in the northern district of Lubicz, home to 17,500 people, said he can’t justify the current payroll. “If the number of pupils is decreasing, we must lay off teachers.”

 

Nationwide figures for how many teaching jobs have been cut are not yet available, according to the Association of Polish Teachers, but some of the steepest reductions include 212 in Kielce, a city of 200,000 people, and 185 in the city of Lodz, according to the Gazeta Prawna newspaper.

 

That cut would be unusual in any year, given the strength of the Polish teachers’ union and the attendant political sensitivity to cutting school jobs. But it is extraordinary this year, as the pink slips have gone out in the months before the 9 October parliamentary elections.

 

The ruling, center-right Civic Platform promises to send more state funds to local governments for education. The largest opposition party, Law and Justice, and the third-place Democratic Left Alliance make a similar promise. They also want to impose more central control over schools and restore a requirement that local education councils, as opposed to bureaucrats, have the last word on school closings.

 

Administrators say firing teachers was a last resort and that they have trimmed around the edges as much as they can. Local authorities have variously boosted teachers' workloads, reduced the number of classes, eschewed replacing retirees, even had parents’ associations take over schools.

 

“We merged schools to reduce administration, or we moved managing the schools’ accounting books to the [district] office, but there’s only so much we could do if we were to continue reducing education expenditure. It’s a worst-case scenario, but next in line would be jobs,” said Stanislaw Kucharczyk, secretary of the Lodygowice district.

 

In Lodygowice village, seat of the district and home to nearly 7,000 people, teachers' salaries take up 75 percent of its annual education budget of just over 17 million zloty ($5.2 million). Local governments across Poland face a similar situation.

 

ARROWS IN OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS

 

In September 1990, 7.5 million pupils started the school year nationwide. This year that number was 5.5 million. Still, the number of teachers has continued to rise - from 658,000 in 2008 to 665,000 this year.

 

In Poland, teachers fall into four salary categories that range from 2,182 zloty ($670) to 2,995 zloty per month. But regional adjustments, bonuses, and other incentives can push a top-earning teacher’s pay up to 4,817 zloty.

 

Just under half of Lodygowice's 189 teachers make the top salary for the district's region, Kucharczyk said.

 

Education funds that local governments get from the national government, called a subvention, fall short, local officials say.

 

“The subvention isn’t enough to cover the salaries. In 2010, we had to add 3.5 million to it in order to pay teachers. That’s more than 10 percent of our [district]’s annual budget. We should have been spending that on investments,” Kucharczyk said.

 

But 665,000 teachers are no minor social or political force. They’re educated and influential, particularly in smaller districts, where they’re often members of local councils. Teachers are also organized into one of the country's strongest trade unions, the Association of Polish Teachers.

 

The union says local authorities are not considering quality issues and are making indiscriminate cuts.

 

Union chairman Slawomir Broniarz could not be reached for comment, but he told Gazeta Prawna in July, “Local authorities, using the pretense of demographics, are carrying out overly extensive job reductions.

 

“Such actions could lead to a drastic drop in the quality of education. Layoffs are not even affecting the worst teachers, as the school principals just don’t have any criteria.”

 

The union argues that fewer jobs should not automatically follow from fewer students and that declining teacher-student ratios can improve education.

 

Zielinska, the IT teacher, says classes in her school have at least 34 students. “The demographics could be taken advantage of so that teachers could work classes of 20 children,” she says.

 

But nationwide figures suggest that if some classrooms are crammed, others must be sparsely populated. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the ratio of students to teaching staff in Polish primary schools is 10.5 to 1, and 12.5 to 1 in secondary schools - both below OECD averages.

 

The union also argues that the situation offers an opportunity for teachers to focus on non-educational tasks, such as helping children become better citizens or taking care of pupils from worse-off families.

 

“Public education and the status of teachers as a profession must not be viewed exclusively from the point of view of a bookkeeper from some bygone era, when cheaper meant better,” the union declared in a statement last month.

Wojciech Kosc is a TOL correspondent in Warsaw.
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