A Dark Anniversary in the Czech Republic
By Betsy Apple
You might think it impossible to rap about inclusive education, but you would be wrong.
Last week, at Prague’s Lucerna Palace, an art nouveau entertainment complex built by Vaclav Havel’s grandfather, Gypsy Crew took the stage. Its four members, all young Roma men, danced and rapped about their desire to go to the same schools as ethnic Czech kids.
The youngest rapper, who looked to be no more than ten years old, and who wore a neat white button-down shirt with a large gold chain around his collar, probably lived what he rapped. Recent statistics show that as many as 35% of all students in what are called “practical schools”—which teach a sub-standard curriculum that fails to prepare kids for higher education—are Roma. This disproportionate representation of Roma children in the Czech Republic’s lowest level schools is shocking, especially when one realizes that the Roma make up only 2-3% of the country’s total population.
Unfortunately, this is an old story in the Czech Republic. In November 2007, in its judgment in D.H. and others v. Czech Republic, the European Court of Human Rights found that the longstanding Czech practice of segregating Roma children into “special schools”—the precursor to today’s practical schools—“constituted unlawful discrimination.” But still, now five years later—as Gypsy Crew would tell you—little has changed for Roma kids.
The hip-hop show at the Lucerna was just one of several events organized by the Open Society Foundations to commemorate the judgment’s dubious fifth anniversary. As part of a photo exhibition—which is on view at the Lucerna through the end of November—we documented the stories of the original applicants from the D.H. case. They were children when the case began, but all are now adults, many with children of their own. We heard the same story again and again: Roma children are still shunted into either practical schools or practical classrooms within mainstream schools. They are still denied the opportunity to advance in their education through participation in the mainstream school system. And without education, their job prospects remain grim.
As Alena Leskova, the mother of one of the applicants, told us, “It is still the same. Nothing has changed. They call it a standard school now, but it’s really still a practical school. This has to change, so that Roma children can become something. So that they have a chance to change their lives.”
The Czech Republic government is in the process now of unveiling a new “action plan,” which is supposed to make the D.H. decision real for Roma families. It’s not the first such plan. This time, at least the Ministry of Education acknowledges that discrimination against Roma kids exists in the educational system; that is progress. But it’s not clear that they are willing to do what is necessary—abolish practical schools—and ensure that Roma children get equal educational opportunities. We hope it won’t take another five years for changes to be felt in schools across the country. The Roma cannot afford to wait one more moment.
Betsy Apple is advocacy director and head of Rule of Law Cluster for the Open Society Justice Initiative.