Can you imagine a developed country anywhere in the world where closing a high school is subject to cabinet approval? It’s hard to imagine, but there is one that lies “in the heart of Europe.” Of course, I’m talking about Hungary, where unfortunately “the heart” is often missing from decisions reached by the country’s political leaders.
Those of you who have been following Hungarian politics already know that I’m talking about the Raoul Wallenberg School, which teaches “human studies,” such as health care, social work, and special education. The school trains healthcare workers (nurses, dental assistants, pharmacy assistants, ambulance nurses, etc.), social care providers (social assistants, child caregivers), and special education assistants. The school was completely renovated ten years ago and cost 3 billion forints. The money, as usual, came from the European Union and, this time, also from Sweden. Since the year 2004 the school has borne the name of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who in 1944 saved several thousand Jewish citizens from certain death in Auschwitz and other extermination camps in Germany. The school has developed close relationships with schools in other European countries. They have yearly student exchange programs, scholarships, teachers’ visits, and conferences. All in all, “Raoul,” as everybody calls the school, is considered to be the best of its kind in Hungary.
So, why did the Orbán government decide to close it and scatter its 1,200 students and 70 teachers among six different vocational schools that don’t teach the subjects Wallenberg specializes in? The schools designated to receive “Raoul” students teach such trades as bricklaying, carpentry, and plumbing. All this was decided in two minutes at a cabinet meeting on March 18. In early April the principal of the school was told that, as of the end of the school year sometime in June, the Raoul Wallenberg School will be no more. And, she was warned, she cannot tell a soul about the school closing. No reason for the sudden decision was given.
It didn’t take long before everybody knew that the building that housed the Wallenberg School will be taken over by the new Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem/National Civil Service University. The expanding new university needs the space. The next victim most likely will be the Museum of Natural Sciences. The administration of the Wallenberg School knew that sooner or later they would have to evacuate the building, but they felt safe until at least April 30, 2016, because the EU grants Hungary received required that they remain in the same building for at least fifteen years. Well, the Hungarian government decided otherwise.
The way the government handled this case is typical. First, decisions are reached in secrecy, so there is no opportunity for those affected by the decisions to express their views. Second, the authorities don’t bother with rules and regulations. In the case of a contemplated school closing, there must be discussions with school boards, parents, teacher’s unions, etc. Of course, none of these people was consulted. Third, it really doesn’t matter what objections are voiced. The government goes full steam ahead anyway. Fourth, if there is trouble, as there was in this case, they send in a man who has no authority to make any decision. Fifth, they would like, if at all possible, to keep the media away. In this case, they also forbade the principal to talk to reporters. And finally, the last word is always that of the highest authority, who is Viktor Orbán himself. Even the minister of education cannot decide on a simple school closing without “the approval of the government.” What a country.
But sometimes the government meets stiff resistance and is forced to make concessions. It took about a week, but it now looks as if the Raoul Wallenberg School will continue as a unit, we just don’t know where. Since the city of Budapest will have only a couple of months to ready a building to receive a school currently equipped with special classrooms and equipment to teach healthcare subjects, it is hard to imagine that the school can open its doors in September. But, still, school officials are relieved and grateful. How did the administration of the school manage to win against the almighty state? Everybody involved refused to obey the order to keep quiet, and they all acted together: school officials, students, teachers, parents, and trade unions.
Although the principal was forbidden to speak, the deputy principal bravely went to ATV and told her story. She was impressive and fearless. The journalists, who initially were not allowed to attend a meeting of students, parents, and teachers with an official of the Klebelsberg Kunó Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), the mammoth office in charge of all Hungarian elementary and high schools, ignored the instructions and gave vivid descriptions of the tumultuous gathering of at least a thousand people. Brave and surprisingly articulate fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds barraged the hapless KLIK representative with hundreds of questions and criticisms until he himself admitted that he doesn’t agree with the decision. Leaders of both teacher’s unions were present and threatened KLIK with a law suit. After the meeting, it became clear that this crowd could not be easily appeased. The closing of the Wallenberg School would be another scandal.
And we mustn’t forget about the outside help the school’s defenders received. The ELTE students who had already twice demonstrated against the government’s trampling on the autonomy of the universities decided to add to their own grievances the unfair treatment of the Raoul Wallenberg School. Their last demonstration ended in front of the Wallenberg School.
Both the Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Hungarian Jewish communities, and the Raoul Wallenberg Society and Foundation also raised their voices in defense of the school. After all, this is the only school in the country that bears the name of Wallenberg. The Raoul Wallenberg Society was especially upset because in the last six years the Society, together with the Holocaust Memorial Center and the Wallenberg School, had organized a program called “Was it a long time ago? Where was it?” If you want to know more about the program, take a look at the Society’s online site. It sounds fascinating. Clearly, in the Wallenberg School students learned more than the normally prescribed subjects. The school took seriously the message of Wallenberg’s activities in Hungary.
It is not over yet, but Zoltán Balog showed up at the school yesterday and announced the change of plans. It is hard to tell why he decided to give in. Perhaps because his hands are full of other troubles concerning healthcare and the so-called reforms of higher education? Or was it the united front formed by teachers, students, parents, and trade union leaders? Was he worried about abolishing a school that bears Raoul Wallenberg’s name? Perhaps a combination of all of these things.
People are increasingly pushing back against the government and perhaps standing a little taller.