I am following with fascination the Orbán government’s reaction to the “teachers’ revolt” that originated with a single complaining letter from a high school in Miskolc, a town that’s not exactly the center of Hungarian liberalism. The movement caught on mostly because another school’s teachers decided to start a webpage on which like-minded teachers and parents could join the Ottó Herman Gymnasium’s staff in demanding a change in Hungarian public education. The emphasis was not on salaries but on the quality of education, which has suffered immeasurably since the government decided to turn public education upside down, creating a monster that can barely function.
A handful of teachers started something that might usher in a new era: a successful grassroots movement to battle the regime Viktor Orbán created in the last six years. Of course, we are still at the very beginning: to date 23,286 individuals and 382 schools have joined the teachers of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium. But that was enough to get the government’s attention.
The response came quickly enough. On January 23 the incompetent top brass of the department in charge of public education, together with Zoltán Balog, minister of the monstrously large Ministry of Human Resources, organized a press conference. This hastily called press conference was held on Saturday, a day before Viktor Orbán left for Mongolia. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Balog was instructed to act immediately. I am also sure that the minister was told how far he can go in appeasing the dissatisfied teachers. Not very far, as we will see.
So, Zoltán Balog assembled the troops: Mrs. Czunyi, the undersecretary, who inherited the mess from her predecessor; László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of higher education; and Péter Horváth, president of the government-created National Teachers’ Association. The promises were meager. Balog claimed that they have been diligently working on reducing the administrative duties of teachers. I don’t know what Balog expected, but the announcement was not greeted with enthusiasm by the teachers and their unions. At long last the two teachers’ unions, the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ) and the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ), decided to move into action. PDSZ is the more radical of the two unions, and until recently the two groups were unable to work together. Union leader Piroska Galló (PSZ) considered László Mendrey’s PDSZ too brash. By now, however, she has realized that her methods no longer work. And so Galló is refusing to accept anything less than a restoration of the autonomy of schools and a return of principals’ competencies. Negotiating with the ministry leads nowhere. Perhaps it is time to consider a teachers’ strike.
During the last week or so more and more teachers reported that KLIK, the “employer” of the teachers, was putting pressure on principals of schools that signed the manifesto of the Miskolc teachers. In turn, the principals put pressure on the teachers, several of whom, after signing the petition, asked that their names to be removed from the list for fear of reprisals. Under the present system if a teacher is fired from his current job, he will not be able to be employed in any of the schools under the supervision of KLIK. A teacher’s fate is entirely in the hands of the state.
Despite all the threats, the number of protesters kept growing. A press conference wasn’t enough. So, three days later, on January 26, in a surprise announcement Balog said that he and his colleagues would visit Miskolc to talk things over. Moreover, he promised that they would pay several visits to various parts of the country to listen to the teachers’ complaints.
Well, the first meeting took place in Miskolc today. Although details of the gathering are sparse, I gained the distinct impression that Balog was forced to realize that the whole educational system as it was devised by Viktor Orbán and Rózsa Hoffmann is unacceptable to the teachers. It is not something that can be remedied with a few concessions. Otherwise, Balog’s comment–“let’s not act as if everything was perfect before”–doesn’t make sense. The teachers’ demand that schools should again be operated and maintained by the same organization means that they want the present dual scheme, which splits the two functions between the central and the local governments, to be abolished. That would mean dismantling KLIK and the centralized state system of education. At the moment that seems out of the question. The nationalization of schools, which makes the curriculum uniform across all schools, was one of Viktor Orbán’s pet projects.
The struggle between the government and the teachers is just beginning. Next door, in Slovakia, a teachers’ strike is underway right now, and if the government is not careful, the same thing might happen in Hungary. My feeling is that although the administration believes that some minor adjustments will suffice, as time goes on Viktor Orbán will have to give up several of his ideas about the ideal education for Hungarian schoolchildren, including the centralization of education.
Today we learned that Fidesz’s approval rate is growing steadily as a result of the government’s migration policies. Yet there are serious problems with the economy, healthcare, and education. The employees of the state railways are on the verge of striking. The government just announced that about 6,000 state employees will lose their jobs due to the closure of several ancillary institutions that served as professional advisory bodies to the ministries. One suspects that there are cash-flow problems because state employees often receive their wages late. Hospitals can’t pay their bills. The whole governmental edifice is crumbling. One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, the whole thing might disintegrate.
Nationwide organization is very easy in the age of the internet. Enterprising teachers at the Ignác Zimándy Elementary School in Törökbálint began a countrywide protest movement simply by starting a website where people and institutions could join the initiative of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium. That’s all that was needed. I understand that a social internet site is being tested at the moment to serve as a platform for those who would like to join others in starting a movement that might lead to the dethroning of Viktor Orbán and the eventual demise of his undemocratic regime.