George Soros, Roma Education, and the Czech Republic
By Robert Basch
This past June, George Soros visited the Czech Republic to attend a meeting of the Decade of Roma Inclusion. Launched in 2005 with support from the Open Society Foundations, the Decade represents an unprecedented political commitment by 12 European countries with significant Roma populations to improve the socioeconomic status and social inclusion of this minority.
Through the Decade, the Czech Republic—along with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain—is working to improve outcomes in education, employment, health, and housing for our Roma population. As part of his visit to Prague, Soros asked our foundation to arrange a side trip to a couple local schools in order to see first hand what the situation is like on the ground.
School segregation has been a major issue in the Czech Republic. In November 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Czech government to stop channeling Roma children into dead-end “special” schools on account of their ethnicity. Despite the ruling, many Roma children are still placed in schools for children with special needs. We still have a long way to go before all children in the Czech Republic receive equal schooling.
We chose two schools in Prague that are examples of the current situation in the Czech Republic. One, school in Prague’s Zizkov neighborhood is attended by 85 percent Roma children, many of them from poor, socially excluded families. Soros spoke with the teachers and principal and heard about the struggles facing the pupils there. At a second school in the Karlin district of Prague—one of the few schools successfully implementing inclusive education—Soros participated in a panel discussion with teachers and NGO representatives.
Soros has long been an active and outspoken advocate on the issue of Roma, and his desire to see for himself what things are like for Roma children was clear during our visit to the schools. But what was most remarkable was Soros’s interactions with the teachers, principals, and local NGO representatives. He inundated them with questions about how to best ensure that Roma children receive the same quality education and career preparedness as other children in the Czech Republic.
Even more important, Soros’s visit helped gain widespread media attention for the issue of school desegregation. He even discussed the matter with the Czech Prime Minister Petr Ne?as, reminding him that the country has the financial means, institutional capacity, and experience from previous successful projects to end the segregation of Roma children in Czech schools. And Soros made clear that the Open Society Foundations are ready to give support and cooperate with the government on this issue.
We have a ways to go in the Czech Republic, but much has changed since the foundation began working to improve the lives of Roma 17 years ago. Recent research suggests that 80,000 Roma in the Czech Republic are deprived of healthcare and without proper access to education and jobs. And although 85 percent of Roma children complete elementary school, a staggering 40 percent of them fail to finish their secondary education. Our foundation will continue trying to make sure that the Czech Republic takes seriously the problems facing its Roma communities and that all Czechs—regardless of ethnicity—have an equal opportunity for education, employment, and a decent life.
Robert Basch is executive director of the Open Society Fund–Prague.