The EC alleges Slovakia violated article 21 of the Fundamental Rights Charter of the EU, which bans discrimination on any grounds including race and ethnic origin, as well as the EC directive on race equality that bans discrimination in the access to education on the grounds of race or ethnicity. On April 29 the EC announced the legal action, after it did so to the Czech Republic under similar circumstances in September 2014.
The Commission is allowed to act in the event a member state violates the EU legislation and does not take appropriate measures to remedy the situation. In such case, the EC can bring the issue forward to the European Court of Justice. The EC will set an official deadline for the Slovak government to respond to the accusations, following which the EC will decide whether to forward the issue to the ECJ.
A 2012 UNDP survey has in fact shown that 43 percent of Roma pupils in Slovak schools were in ethnically segregated classes. In the same year, the Prešov Regional Court confirmed a historic verdict in a case concerning discrimination against Roma in the education system issued by a district court in January 2012, which stated that an elementary school in Šarišské Michaľany discriminated against students by creating separate classrooms for children located on separate floors.
The court did not accept the explanation of the school that it did not separate children according to their ethnicity, but based on the fact that they came from a socially-disadvantaged environment.
Tougher against segregation
The EC has adopted a tougher stance towards the member states, including Slovakia, that discriminate against Roma communities, human rights watchdogs said as they applauded the decision. The EC’s initiative was welcomed by Amnesty International, the European Network Against Racism, the European Roma Rights Centre and the Open Society Foundation in a joint press release.
It is shocking that Roma children in Slovakia are systematically segregated from non-Roma children and sent to special schools, Amnesty International office director for European institutions Iverna McGowan said.
“No child should ever be denied equal access to education. This is a basic human right,” she said as quoted in the press release.
Deaf to complaints
Some Roma rights watchdogs have pointed to the continued segregation in Slovak schools before. In 2014, Slovakia was evaluated within the Universal Periodical Evaluation of the UN and was recommended to deal with discrimination of Roma at schools. The government however argued that equal treatment has already been legislatively secured and did not pay further attention to the recommendations, the press release reads.
The EC action will now force the Slovak government to avoid discrimination and secure the right to the access to education for all its citizens with complex reforms and targeted assistance for the relevant players in the education system, the organisations wrote in their press release.
Special schools full of Roma
The government proxy for Roma communities Peter Pollák admitted that there is a continued practice in placing Roma children in special schools in Slovakia. Slovak ombudswoman Jana Dubovcová for instance stated in her extraordinary report from 2013 that 88 percent of pupils in schools for children with light mental disability were Roma. She demanded the parliament to discuss the report, but that has not been done as of yet, she noted in her reaction to the news about the EC action as reported by the SITA newswire.
Dubovcová regrets that Slovakia has landed in problems through its own doing, she told SITA.
“It did not need to happen to us if the executive and legislative power have not ignored the problem,” Dubovcová said.
On the other hand, EC action against Slovakia creates room for a change in the approach of Slovak authorities.
Pollák talks compulsory preschool
Pollák claims that his office has been trying to lower the number of Roma schools in special schools, including through new diagnostic tests that are used to determine which students need special education.
“The reason why they are placed into these schools is the insufficient preschool preparation, incorrect diagnostics, supporting special schools through higher normatives, but also irresponsible behaviour of parents who agree with their child being placed into a special school,” Pollák stated in his reaction to the EC action on April 30.
Paradoxically, even though the education of a pupil in a special school is expensive for the state, it is hardly a good starting point for the pupil on the labour market.
“By placing these children into regular primary schools we will bring up a generation of Roma who will be prepared for the labour market and will not be dependent on social allowances,” Pollák stated.
Pollák's officeclaims to have proposed four measures to prevent segregation in Slovak schools: compulsory kindergartens for children from socially excluded communities from the age of 3, compulsory after-school (afternoon) education for those children, 12 years compulsory education, and changed diagnostics so that children with light mental disability are integrated into regular schools.
The proposal of compulsory preschool education has met with controversial reactions, with some experts arguing against it as discriminatory.