Education reform reaches top court

  • 2005-04-20
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - The Constitutional Court began hearing arguments in a case against the education reform on April 13, after 20 MPs from ethnic minority parties appealed to the highest court claiming the reform does not comply with the constitution.

Advocates argue that new rules governing public-school language instruction have brought down the standard of minority schools. They say that the legislation, whether intentional or not, only affects a minority and is therefore discriminating.

Making it to the country's highest court, the case represents one of the last opportunities to either stop or alter the educational reform program. Implemented in September of this year, it mandates that 60 percent of classes be held in Latvian for students, begining in grade 10 this year.

Should the anti-reformists lose at the Constitutional Court level, they can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights for redress. However, due to earlier decisions by the Strasbourg-based court, few believe that a European ruling against the reform would be forthcoming.

A court ruling is expected on May 13.

To bring a case directly to the Constitutional Court, one fifth of Parliament must petition the court, a feat that past minority parties would have given into, as their numbers fell short of the threshold.

Boris Cilevics, an MP from the National Harmony Party, earlier attempted to bring the case before the court as a parent, but his efforts were in vain.

Cilevics, who spoke before court justices, said the state could not mandate "love of the language." He stressed that everyone should speak Latvian and that Latvian should be the national language but that quality of education was no less a priority according to the constitution.

He criticized the state for failing to engage in dialogue with those affected by the reform, something government representatives denied. He argued that the government should take responsibility for proving that the reform is not discriminatory and in line with EU legislation.

In defense, pro-reform parliamentarians cited meetings with minority NGO leaders where they were enlightened on reform detail.

"A dialogue does not mean one party explaining to the other party what it has not yet understood," countered Ilze Brands-Kehris, head of the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies.

It remains too early to tell the results of the reform due to a dearth of information. Past results, however, have found that Latvian and Russian high schools performed more or less equally when tested in their own languages. When Russians were tested with Latvian-written geography, cultural history and business exams, their scores were invariably lower than native Latvian speakers.

Education experts were also brought in to testify before the court on April 13. Among them were Maria Golubeva, a researcher at the public policy NGO Providus, and Ilmars Mezs, an advisor at the Special Secretariat of the Integration Ministry.

Shtab, the unregistered anti-reform organization, which had favored more radical forms of protest, such as hunger strikes and threats, announced that it had given up its campaign against the legislation, due to a lack of participation.

Shtab leaders said they would shift their focus to citizenship issues and the future status of the Russian language.

During the inter-war period, a liberal education model existed in Latvia, as each minority was given the right to education in their own language. Under the Soviet system, all minority schools were closed, leaving only Russian and Latvian language schools.

Since the re-establishment of independence, minority education is once again an option. For years, the education reform brewed on Parliament's back burner. Government officials have said that some graduates of Russian schools did not speak Latvian at a sufficient enough level to be competitive in the job market.