AS SLOVAK schools gear up for the first academic year under new regional parliaments, deep problems remain in the Dzurinda government's drive to devolve state power over education. Besides crippling debt, many schools say they face possible default on utility bills, and even lack basic teaching materials and texts.
Debt in the education system reached Sk763 million ($17 million) at the end of July, surprising Education Ministry officials who had counted on a maximum debt of Sk400 million. Regional parliaments insist the government cover the debt before handing schools over to their administration.
The financial difficulties may again affect schools' abilities to cover payments for heat this winter, possibly leading to a repeat of shutdowns and extended Christmas holidays that some schools have used in recent years to save on gas costs.
However, teachers say a more troubling problem is the Education Ministry's continuing failure to provide students with accurate and up-to-date textbooks, particularly for teaching history.
"For [teaching history] there are practically no materials. For the period after [the communist coup in] 1948, there are temporary texts that were published in 1990 - which means a half-year to a year after the 1989 revolution. There's nothing else," said Zuzana Rybová, a history teacher at a high school in the western Slovak town of Trnava.
"Historical knowledge is very weak among most students. We have to realise that a generation is growing up which has no inkling of the situation under communism, and for them we have to explain all the consequences right from the beginning," added Rybová.
Slovakia's quest to implement standard history texts for primary and secondary schools has been plagued with difficulty over the last decade.
Since the country became independent in 1993, a number of histories have been written, but the only one so far to achieve wide acceptance among educators is a textbook for the first year of secondary school, introduced last year and covering Slovak history up to the 15th century.
After having approved one modern history as a standard text in 1996, the ministry scrapped the work after complaints by local historians and international bodies, including the European Union, that the book had trivialised the role of the world war two Slovak state in the deportation of Jews, Roma and other citizens to Nazi concentration camps.
Last year's freshman text has been followed by a volume for the second year of secondary school, set to be introduced this year.
While educators welcome the new texts, some schools say that they have not received enough copies, and that they will have to continue improvising.
"New texts came for first year students. There are a few inaccuracies, but we are very happy to have them. The ones we used [before last year] were published in 1984," said Ružena Kormošová, who has taught history for 20 years at the Školská high school in the eastern Slovak town of Spišská Nová Ves.
"For second year students, though, the situation is catastrophic. We have no texts, no workbooks, nothing to use. Last year we were still using Czech textbooks from the 1980s," she added.
To substitute for the missing materials, Kormošová said that she often gives her students materials from the historical monthly Historická Revue, as well as supplementing lessons with regional and local history.
With her third and fourth year students, says Kormošová, she has abandoned the school's pre-revolution texts, and instead does seminar-type projects involving local resources and the Internet.
"The problem is not books - people have made the books. The problem is that the ministry has rejected them," said Kormošova, an opinion voiced by many in education.
"Our ministry is not giving rise to legislative conditions for the birth of new texts. From year to year the finances for their creation gets smaller and smaller," said Viliam Kratochvíl, an outspoken critic of previous history texts from Bratislava's Comenius University.
The ministry, however, counters that new books are available, and that officials are doing everything possible to ensure the supply of teaching materials.
"Every school got as many books as they requested," said Eva Danišová from the primary and secondary school section of the Education Ministry.
Danišová added that history texts for the third and fourth years of secondary school are currently in preparation.
"Sometimes if we have too many students there are not enough books. Last year some titles were missing and a few students had to share books," said Božena Bendžalová, head of the English department at Kormošová's school.
"I think with books we are OK. Heating is another question, but one that I can't answer."