As the Czech Republic prepares to become a member of the European Union sometime in the first few years of the new millennium, the country has been reshaping and improving its education system at all levels by giving consideration to some of the thorniest problems yet to be tackled and making solid progress at transforming a once heavily state-directed system into a more fluid, responsive publicly owned system. Significant problems remain to be overcome as the national economy begins to improve and the country regains some of the economic shine enjoyed in the first few years after independence when so many leaders of other transitional countries marveled at the economic accomplishments of this Central European state that once stood like a gem in the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor. As a 1999 World Bank-sponsored report concluded:
The educational environment in the Czech Republic is dynamic in several respects: (i) overall enrollments are tending to decline as a function of the declining population; (ii) within this broad trend, university and other postsecondary enrollments have increased, along with technical secondary and to some extent gymnasia, whereas vocational secondary education has substantially decreased and kindergarten is slowly declining; (iii) private education has been introduced, especially at the technical secondary level; (iv) extensive decentralization took place, with district education authorities playing a key role, but even municipalities becoming involved in kindergarten and basic education; and (v) normative financing has become the dominant method of allocating educational expenditures.
All of the above seemed to bode well for the positive transformation of a previously state-controlled system relatively unresponsive to the needs or interests of the Czech people into a vibrant and invigorating system ready to deliver educational services to all the population, no matter the age, educational level, or economic circumstances of the individual student. However, at the same time, the World Bank authors identified certain challenges to progress apparent in the education system of the Czech Republic at the end of the 1990s. These were namely, overly numerous public schools, shrinking teaching loads in kindergartens and vocational schools but not a correspondingly shrinking teaching force, a generally conservative teaching force unversed in more-modern and appropriate teaching methods, the failure to recruit sufficient numbers of young people as teachers who could revitalize the system, and significant administrative fragmentation as the educational system attempted to decentralize, which was likely to impede improvements being made system-wide. The upper secondary level in particular appeared to have some rather serious problems in need of correction that were not being adequately addressed, in the eyes of the World Bank analysts.
The European Commission reported in November 2000 that the Czech Republic was making steady progress in implementing legislation related to education, training, and youth as well as legislation concerning participation in European Community-sponsored programs. While continuing problems were noted with the provision of education to migrant workers' children, the Czech Republic was seen as having made improvements in educating children from socially and culturally disadvantaged backgrounds. Undoubtedly, the groups referred to here included the Roma, who had been subjected to substantial educational discrimination in the years after the break with the Soviet system. In the year 2000 the parents of 18 Romani children in Ostrava, one of the largest cities in Moravia in the east of the country, had lodged a formal complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg claiming that the Czech state had regularly practiced discrimination and segregation by placing inordinate and disproportionate numbers of Romani children into special schools for children with mental disabilities. While Romani children constitute only 5 percent of the primary-school population in Ostrava, more than half of the students placed in special schools in Ostrava are Romani. In the nation as a whole, three-quarters of Romani children are taught in special schools, and more than half of students in special schools are Roma. Although many of the Roma decidedly have special language needs and have been reluctant to integrate among other ethnic minority groups and the ethnic majority Czechs, the practice of placing students in schools for the mentally deficient or disabled clearly should raise eyebrows and calls into question the validity of the educational philosophy underlying the Czech educational system. One of the greatest challenges for post-Communist states in Europe and elsewhere appears to be confronting racial and ethnic prejudice and ensuring the equitable distribution of social goods among the people in the society—no matter how small their numbers or how different their cultural traditions. An aspect of democratization that has created trauma in a number of countries around Europe in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is the allowing of popular participation in governance that ensures everyone the right to express his or her views and preferences without infringing on the rights of the others in their midst. More troubling than the shortage of young teachers interested in entering the field of education and more likely to affect the larger society in terms of how peoples differing from the majority are accepted and treated, this problem of widespread ethnic prejudice and mistreatment of some people by others in the post-Soviet Czech society must be confronted and directly addressed. Admirably, some school administrators, education officials, and teachers, often with internal assistance, were developing educational programs designed to foster tolerance and better ethnic relations in their communities at the start of the new millennium. Such initiatives would be wise to replicate throughout the country with government support and the involvement of civil society groups interested in developing a more respectful civil discourse richly colored with the ethnic contributions of all the members of the Czech Republic.
In terms of the future for the Czech education system, perhaps the greatest need is to find a way to cope with the great administrative bureaucracy that has developed over time through the Communist era and again as the country has sought to reform its political system. Unless a greater streamlining of administrative functions and the clearer delegation of educational responsibilities is accomplished over the next few years, the long-term consequences for the education of the Czech Republic's children and youth are likely to be dismal indeed. By addressing the problems identified not only by school experts within the country but also by international specialists working to facilitate the Czech Republic's integration with the European Union in the coming years, Czech educators can improve their system and provide the means by which future generations may prepare themselves for life in a healthily functioning, politically stable, economically prosperous society. To this end, several recommendations developed by educational specialists in the Czech Republic and presented to World Bank analysts studying the decentralization of education in Europe's transitional countries are worth holding in mind. To address the problems arising in connection with efforts to decentralize the education system and to make it more responsive both to the needs of the people and the labor-market, the specialists suggest that appropriate "support structures and processes" be developed and put in place "to ensure efficient management: management training, ongoing teacher education and room for personal initiative, improved information and evaluation mechanisms, and so forth" (Hendrichova et al.). Additionally, the authors believe "the Ministry of Education must strengthen its analytical, coordinative, conceptual, and strategic functions." Greater public participation in developing and implementing a more-responsive education system is recommended by these educational specialists, who state, "Schools, teachers, parents, municipalities or other levels of regional administration and selfgovernance, employers, trade unions, and politicians—in a word, all stakeholders—should participate in consultative bodies at all levels and should create them where they do not yet exist. The school system and issues concerning education should become public matters."
Assuredly, Václav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic, would agree that every member of the Czech Republic must help create a society where the government responds to the needs of the people and education serves the public. As Havel reminds us, "Responsibility cannot be preached but only borne, and the only possible place to begin is with oneself."
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—Barbara Lakeberg Dridi
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