New school year starts with budget cuts

Photo: CTK

As students and teachers start the new school year this Monday, parents of Czech elementary school students may have more concerns than in previous years. With the general economic climate worsening, the Education Ministry has had to make some cuts to school budgets, placing a heavier financial burden on the students’ families.

Photo: CTK
This year will see 12,000 more students entering Czech schools than last. And 3,500 more spots will be filled in the first grade than in September 2011. Yet the budget of the Education Ministry, and the help it is able to provide to public elementary schools, does not seem to have grown with the student body. The chairwoman of the Czech Association of Elementary School Principals said recently on Czech Television that according to a study carried out in May, 60% of Czech elementary schools do not have enough funds to purchase new textbooks for their students, or cover many of the yearly mandatory expenses. Jaroslava Wenigerová, a Civic Democratic MP and vice-chairwoman of the Parliamentary committee for science and education, says that the government was concerned with more important expenses, given this year’s state budget cuts:

“When you look at the budget for the education ministry and see the priorities for this year, I have to say unfortunately that textbooks and learning aids are not a priority, because precedence was given to teacher salaries in the regions. When were looking for where to make cuts, the finance ministry gave only 700 million crowns, out of the four billion crowns that we needed to save. The rest of the 3.3 billion had to come from the budget of the Education Ministry. This area had to suffer as a result.”

Education Minister Petr Fiala,  photo: CTK
The burden of budget cuts will not only affect schools, but inevitably parents as well. Elementary schools, for example, will not receive the so-called “crayon subsidies” this year. This one-off payment of 800 crowns for every first-grader allowed schools to purchase books and some supplies for the upcoming year. This year, parents will have to buy these necessary items on their own, in addition to other supplies, books, and clothing that can add up to a hefty sum for some parents.

The principal at the Jiří Guth-Jarkovský elementary and high school in Prague, Jitka Kendíková, agrees that the changes may be a problem:

Photo: CTK
“I think every crown counts, especially for the parents of first-graders, because for many such parents it’s a shock to find out how much all of the things they need cost. The 800 crowns allowed us to buy high quality textbooks for learning reading and writing and supplies like crayons, paints. And since I had my own child in the first grade last year, I can say that if you want to get quality school supplies for your child, you may have to spend up to 5,000 crowns.”

For some parents, this kind of an investment may be a serious burden, forcing them to make compromises not only in the quality of books and supplies, but also clothing. One elementary school decided it wants to minimize the visible signs of economic differences between students, and maybe even help some parents save a bit of money, by introducing school uniforms. Fifty first-graders at the Františka Plamínková elementary school in Prague’s Letná district will be the first public school students to wear uniforms in the Czech Republic. The school’s principal, Jindřich Koudela, explained why the administration felt this was the right move to make:

Photo: Matěj Liška
“We’ve seen that children have a tendency to compare each other not only according to the clothes they wear, but primarily with that in mind. And richer kids can sometime say very ugly things to their less well off classmates. That’s why we decided we will try the uniforms, to try to give all of them the same opportunities.”

The local municipal administration paid around 100,000 crowns so that the school can provide four short-sleeve, two long-sleeve polo shirts and a sweatshirt to each first-grade student for free. The girls’ shirts will be raspberry pink and boys will have royal blue shirts with the school’s insignia embroidered on the front.

Some have doubts about how much it will actually level the playing field and not simply raise the profile of the school in the current competitive education environment.