by Kinga Rajzák
In August last year, the Hungarian government announced it would suspend rolling supplementary aid to some of the country’s most prominent foundation-run schools, which offer education to minorities and marginalised communities in poverty-stricken rural areas where mounting social disparities stymie equal access to quality education.
“The timing was curious,” said Nóra L. Ritók, founder and director of the Igazgyöngy Alapítvány (Real Pearl Foundation), which runs six art centers and offers extracurricular activities for about 600 disadvantaged children each year. “The decision hit organizations that see education as a great equalizer that can lift children from poverty. That’s why it was startling that the authorities, in the eleventh hour, put a dent in our yearly budgets.”
The government has cited the coronavirus pandemic as a major reason for its decision to discontinue financial support for these institutions. Coming on the cusp of the new school year, the move affected the Real Pearl Foundation, the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood (MET) and the Dr. Ámdékar School, each of which would receive either half of the previously awarded supplementary grants, or nothing at all.
These institutions are at the forefront of educating children in some of the most geographically isolated and cash-strapped areas in Hungary, where many students drop out or do not study beyond the obligatory school attendance age of 16, thus becoming posterchildren for the generational achievement gap.
All three organizations operate in rural regions or urban outskirts where most residents are Roma — Hungary’s largest ethnic minority — and live below the poverty line. Infrastructure is poor in these areas: there is often a lack of properly paved roads, schools and community buildings, and many of the homes are dilapidated and overcrowded, often without electricity or potable water.
“It is no surprise that they picked on us,” said reverend Gábor Iványi, the founder and chairman of MET, which runs over 20 school networks across the country for around 3,000 students each year. “It is easy and convenient to find excuses for cutting this grant, but we know that in the background lies the government’s disinterest in helping this strata of the population.”
In addition to poor infrastructure and poverty, factors like domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health issues lead to shortcomings in basic reading and mathematics proficiency levels among those students that make it past elementary school. Furthermore, many families make their children do odd manual jobs or seasonal labor in order to make ends meet, and don’t have extra cash to pay for commutes to nearby schools.
“The segregation of these communities starts with such a simple thing as a bus ticket,” Iványi said. “If you cannot afford to travel to school then you will fall behind. Ironically, education will thus become an unlikely source of inequality that will fortify the widening gap between the socially and economically disadvantaged and the middle-class.”
János Orsós, an educator and founding member of the Roma Buddist foundation Dzsaj Bhím which runs the Dr. Ámbédkar School, offering high school education to Roma students, says stereotypes also foster a belief that education cannot lead to a better life.
“When you hear left and right that a Roma person is good for nothing but the fields, then it is easy to accept that your destiny is manual labor, not white collar work,” Orsós said. “These days it is harder than ever to get out of the slums. If you are told you can make as much as your parents at 16 [by going to work], then you will make a rash decision and drop out of school which has long term consequences. Though I am a living, breathing example of the fact that education offers a ticket out of the rural ghetto.”
One step forward, two steps back
In 2011, Hungary implemented a series of policies aimed at promoting inclusion and equal employment opportunities for Roma communities, such as the National Strategy for Roma Integration Act for the 2011-2020 cycle. Additionally, in an effort to prepare children for school and reduce the dropout rate, a 2013 law made it mandatory for children aged three and up to attend kindergarten for four hours a day, five days a week.
However, the National Education Act of 2011 reduced the mandatory minimum age for school attendance from 18 to 16, leading to a rise in early departure rates and indirectly undoing previous measures meant to address disadvantages among the Roma.
Following the law’s passage, school attendance among disadvantaged students dropped sharply, from the all-time high of 20,126 in 2011 to 6,022 in 2014. Orsós said that the government’s action was a clear move to restrict access to higher education and push the majority of Roma students into early manual labor or vocational schools.
In Hungary, the tracking of school performance begins in elementary school and determines where a child can continue their secondary education. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the tracking measures are particularly harmful for disadvantaged children who may underperform in school and thus do not make the cut for quality secondary education.
As a result, around 85 percent of Hungarian students (compared to the OECD average of 45 percent) are admitted to schools based on their performance or recommendations from feeder schools, which hinders equal learning opportunities for the disadvantaged and leads to lasting socio-economic disadvantages and disparities in certain communities.
“The system is designed to privilege the middle-class,” said Orsós, who used to teach about 300 high schoolers at the Dr. Ámdékar school, a number which shrank to about 100 after 2011.
Foundation-run schools educate the disadvantaged
Schools run by foundations are approved and accredited by the government, then relegated to the oversight of either the Ministry of Human Resources or the Ministry of Innovation and Technology. The schools are entitled to a government subsidised sum to cover staff salaries, paid for by the Hungarian Treasury. How much each foundation receives depends on the number of children enrolled at their schools.
However, the subsidy alone is not enough to keep a school afloat: supplementary grants are an important source of additional funds to cover costs like rent, school supplies, travel and other student needs.
Real Pearl’s annual operations are funded by 51 million forints (€146,000) in state grants for staff salaries, and a 17 million forint (€48,800) supplemental grant. While the foundation charges only 1,500 forints (€4.5) per month for classes, only 30 percent of the students can cover this fee.
Ritók says that her foundation even provides clothing for some particularly disadvantaged students, and also extends emotional and intellectual counselling.
“We basically do what the government should be doing: attempting to provide psychological support to mitigate the debilitating effects of poverty and inequality many of these helpless, innocent children face,” she said.
The foundation is overseen by the Ministry of Human Resources, and since 1999 has been one of the most important organizations in Hungary assisting the poor. The state initially supplied it with a supplementary grant on a multi-year basis, but after the passage of a new law in 2017, it must now apply for the grant annually.
Last summer, Ritók received a call from the State Secretary of Human Resources, Zoltán Maruzsa, who summoned her to Budapest to discuss her school.
“The secretary said that the pandemic forced the government to tighten their belts,” Ritók said. “They were considering cutting our aid.”
Within a few weeks, Ritók had learned through the media that her organization’s supplement had been cut in half for the year, and eliminated completely for the 2021/2022 school year.
“I find it maddening that the government has hundreds and thousands of millions to fund hunting conventions and build soccer stadiums, but somehow has no budget to eradicate poverty and create equal opportunity for the most vulnerable,” said Ritók, who has managed to raise enough funds through donations to secure this school year and the 2021/2022 fall term.
The rise of religious schools
As some of these foundation-run schools had their budgets slashed, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Reformed and Greek Catholic schools receive generous government endowments and cultivate good relations with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has argued multiple times that his administration aims to restore Hungary’s decency through education which, according to him, has been undermined by liberal influence.
In 2020, at the inauguration of a Christian school’s new building, Orbán said that the church and the government were partners in furthering public education, and that public funds were best spent on religious schools. Orbán also quoted Endre Gyökössy, a reformed priest and writer, saying that “the duty of Christian freedom is...to raise our [children] to be homo christianus.”
During the early 2000s, religious schools made up only about 6 percent of Hungary’s national educational system, but this number had grown considerably by 2010 when it hit about 20 percent. After Orbán began his second term that year, the number of religious schools ballooned: there were 50,680 students in church-run primary schools in 2010, but by 2020 that number had exploded to more than 111,000.
The Fidesz government has done a lot to contribute to this burst in popularity. Prior to Orbán’s second mandate, religious schools were less popular than secular ones among affluent parents who sought private schools for their children. But by 2015, legal provisions such as the 2010 government-led privatization of church-run schools made them more appealing for wealthy parents. By 2020, religious schools had overtaken state-funded schools in terms of preference.
Religious primary and secondary schools cluster toward the top of annual rankings, and have an excellent track record for getting their students into top universities in Hungary or abroad. However, these religious schools tend to have an economically homogeneous student body with most of the pupils coming from middle-class families.
“The nexus of racial and economic segregation has been fortified by our educational system,” Iványi said. “There are just as many great talents born in the rural shantytowns as on Rózsadomb (Budapest’s most affluent district), but those in poverty will never be given the platform to succeed.”
According to a 2016 sociological study by Zoltán Hermann and Júlia Varga, while religious schools present themselves as morally and ethically engaged in combating discrimination, in practice they do not function as engines for social mobility. Even in rural areas, religious schools tend to sideline students from low-income families and show a preference for middle-class students unless the school is in a segregated area.
In addition to their tendency to serve children from more affluent families, religious schools also enjoy favorable treatment from the government. Religious organizations recognized by the state are not overseen by any government entity, but receive ample financial support for their schools via government endowments and other perks.
For example, Catholic schools are entitled to an annual endowment of about 230,000 forints (€700) per child following a 1997 agreement with the Vatican. They can also collect charitable donations given by individual taxpayers, and are entitled to receive further government subsidised grants for building maintenance and the upkeep of monuments, libraries and archives, and also get supplementary aid for innovative projects and other expenses.
“Of course schools run by religious organizations do not have to fear that they will lose their endowments from one day to the next, even though they do not foster the education of the disadvantaged as we do,” said Ritók, adding that she believes “elitist” religious organizations “have no room for poor Roma children in their midst.”
MET and Dr. Ámbédkar both follow a religious philosophy and were previously registered by the state as religious institutions, but were among hundreds of churches stripped of that designation in 2011 after a new law narrowed the number of religious denominations across Hungary, affecting hundreds of church-run schools.
“They took away our religious title first, and now have their eye on our measly supplementary aid,” said Iványi, who has been embroiled in litigation with the government over the lost designation since 2011. “They are set on destroying us.”
Iványi said he came into Orbán’s crosshairs when he chose not to stand with him on various issues during his first mandate in the 1990s, and after he returned to power in 2010. Orbán was angered by Ivanyi’s rejection and didn’t hesitate to exclude MET from the 2011 law that affected religious entities, he said.
“I officiated Orbán’s wedding and baptised two of his children,” said Iványi, who got his church approved in 1981 and operated until 2011 without any serious obstacles. “I didn’t change, Orbán did. He gradually came to think that progressive ideas were the devil’s work, so we naturally clashed.”
After losing its religious title, MET brought the case to Hungary’s highest court, which called on the government to reinstate its status and reimburse the organization’s lost endowments from 2011. Orbán’s answer was to twist the constitution so that the highest court could not make rulings on religious organizations, which prompted MET in 2014 to seek justice at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. While MET won that case and received over a billion forints (€2.8 million) in damages from the Hungarian government, it still hasn’t had its religious designation reinstated to this day, causing it to spiral into debt.
“We built a robust infrastructure to help the poor as we knew that our status would mean we would always receive sufficient funds to function,” Iványi said. “Obviously, losing it implied we would amass great debt towards the state through unpaid bills such as gas, electricity and such.”
Last August, State Secretary of Human Resources Zoltán Maruzsa told Iványi that MET’s schools were not producing enough benefits for the common good, and that its supplementary grant would thus be slashed from 190 million forints (€545,000) to 95 million (€272,000) for the 2020/2021 year, and suspended entirely for the following one.
The only foundation that was told it would receive no supplementary grant for the 2021/2022 period was the Dr. Ámbédkar School.
“The supplementary grant was one of our lifelines,” said Orsós, whose Miskolc-based school was set to lose 30 million forints (€86,000) from the Ministry of Human Resources - which is in charge of elementary and secondary education - unless it agreed to be brought under the oversight of the Ministry of Innovation and Technology, responsible for secondary vocational schools.
This move would mean Dr. Ámbédkar would be forced to become a vocational school if it hoped to continue receiving supplementary grants.
“We said yes, but I made it clear to Secretary László Palkovics that we would join only if we could still continue with our current class of high school students,” said Orsós. “We obviously couldn’t say no to the merger, because otherwise we would have been financially wrecked and would have had to give up our school to the state.”
Despite the controversies, Hungarian authorities often laud the government’s Roma-friendly policies, even as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has referred to the Roma population pejoratively on numerous occasions. In 2015, he said that “Hungarians have to learn to live” with the Roma, implying that they were not Hungarian citizens.
“There are multiple examples that show segregation is deep-seated in the system, which is why Roma children often don’t meet any white kids until later in life,” Orsós said. “When they come to our school, we try to get them to meet their white peers at other schools and meet university students, and we even take them on a trip to our sister school in Innsbruck which helps them to realize, ‘Wow I can have a different life, there are opportunities, there is a way out.’”
Iványi said that he is convinced equal treatment is not a priority for Hungary’s government, but that this makes his organization’s work all the more important.
“We must eradicate these injurious stereotypes and work to become a better society in which everyone has equal rights and opportunities,” he said. “This is the only way we can grow as a nation.”
The Ministry of Human Resources (Emberi Erőforrások Minisztériuma) did not immediately respond to our request for comment.
This article is published as part of a project to promote independent digital media in Central and Eastern Europe funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and coordinated by Notes from Poland.