The Council of Europe's watchdog says Czech marginalization of Roma children is an outrage—but no action has been taken to deal with the problem.
Europe's top human-rights watchdog, Thomas Hammarberg, issued an urgent rebuke to the Czech Republic last week: Stop the continued racial segregation of Roma children in schools, which damns them to “a future as second-class citizens.”
But unless the Czech government acts with lightning speed over the next few months, thousands of Roma children will end up in what amount to dead-end classes this September—incorrectly placed in "practical schools" for children with mental disabilities.
Three years ago, a landmark judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) condemned the treatment of Roma children as discriminatory. But Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's human-rights commissioner, found in his report that “little has changed on the ground.”
In some parts of the country, Roma children are still up to 27 times more likely than others to be wrongly sent to "practical schools" with an inferior curriculum that leaves them poorly educated and with few job options.
Czech officials have neither acknowledged the gravity of the problem, nor demonstrated resolve in addressing it. In short, although the ECHR decision mandated an end to ethnic-based school placements, discrimination against Roma in education remains widespread in the Czech Republic.
Other European governments—whose foreign ministers sit on the Council of Europe's top political body overseeing human rights—could help make sure more Roma children do not lose their shot at a good education.
But to date, the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers has given the Czech Republic a pass.
Inexplicably, the committee has praised the adoption of a National Action Plan for Inclusive Education that sets no targets for desegregation, and that will not start being implemented—by the government's own estimates—until 2014. It has overlooked the fact that the government has not allocated any funding for this plan, despite accessing millions in European Union funds specifically for this purpose. (About 10% of the money has been spent and the remainder is in danger of being diverted to another purpose or handed back to the EU.)
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic's center-right government, which came to power in May 2010, has dismantled those parts of the education ministry genuinely trying to pursue an inclusive education agenda. It downsized the section dealing with special education and pushed out staff committed to equal opportunity. Others left of their own accord, citing a lack of political will to reform.
Last December, the Committee of Ministers promised to “resume consideration” of this case at its next meeting. But that will not happen. Roma education in the Czech Republic was not placed on the agenda of the committee's meetings for March 8–10.
This is a missed opportunity, especially in the wake of Hammarberg's report.
“With thousands of Roma children effectively excluded from the mainstream education system in the Czech Republic...it is now time to speed up the implementation of the inclusive education agenda,” the report says.
Hammarberg urged the Czech government to mark “a clear change of direction already with the next intake of children in the 2011-2012 school year.”
But admissions for the next school year have already started—and the system of school assignment remains unchanged.
Removing barriers to educational equality is essential if Roma are to become full and equal citizens of Europe. The Committee of Ministers—whose responsibility it is to oversee the implementation of ECHR judgments—must spur the Czech government to action. It should be warning right now that concrete steps are needed by its next meeting in June. No more Roma children should be sent to "practical" schools until the placement and testing systems are overhauled. The plan for inclusive education must specify a timetable for desegregation. And adequate funding must be allocated.
How many more generations of Roma children must be condemned to second-class education before the committee can be persuaded to act?