Minority education is very often seen as an alternative to Roma school desegregation by those opposing desegregation. Minority education is also a reasonable argument and the fear to be categorized as segregationist is limited having in mind the legal framework for the protection of national minorities.
Let us make clear the important difference between minority education and desegregation. Minority education aims at preserving the language and cultural and ethnic identity of an ethnic group. There are provisions in the international law protecting this right of the national minorities. In the European legal system, the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities represents the highest legally binding standard regulating minority education. Desegregation is a process aiming to ensure equal access to quality education for a particular group, usually minority group at disadvantage. Desegregation focuses on both accesses to education as well as the content of the right to education by stressing that every child is entitled to the same quality of education. Thus, desegregation focuses on ensuring equality as regard right to education.
Following this line of argumentation, one might say that minority education derives from minority rights and is concerned with minority identity while desegregation derives from the human rights and is concerned with the principle of equality and the right not to be discriminated against. Balancing the two perspectives, it is evident that the principle of equality as part of the fundamental human rights takes precedence over the right to maintain one’s identity. In other words, minority education is important, but it is still a bonus while desegregation is about ensuring fundamental human rights.
Should minority education continue to exist as it collides with the human rights approach to education? The answer is absolutely yes! In a democratic society, this balancing is solved by the principle of free choice of education by the parents or legal guardians of the children. Parental choice is an important aspect in solving the conflict between the minority rights approach and the human rights approach to education. The international law is not clear as regards parental choice and the best interest of the child. However, this issue will be discussed later.
To sum up, I do not see minority education and desegregation as mutually exclusive. One might chose mainstream education while others should have also the right to study in their mother tongue. From this point of view, minority education could co-exist with the desegregation process. Those that argue for minority education as an alternative to school desegregation bring up the argument of keeping or building the ethnic identity of pupils and the advantages of having a homogenous environment, specifically in the generations and mediation of conflicts. I refute these arguments as non-realistic, theoretically invalid and ungrounded in the everyday reality.
If the aim of the education system and authorities is to keep or build the Roma ethnic identity, then how one could explain that in the segregated school the curricula is not in Romani language – not even thought as a foreign language in most of the cases – and rarely includes subjects on history and traditions of Roma. What separation of children based on ethnicity has to do with Roma identity when policy makers do not consider basic aspects of the identity representation in public education? On the contrary, the stigma associated with the so-called “Gypsy schools” ort “Gypsy classes” inflicts a sense of inferiority in the children enrolled in these schools and classes. Separating Roma children from their peers reflects rather the widespread stereotypes and prejudices towards Roma as backward, stupid and not worth as human beings.
The homogenous environment does not help with the identity building process. In the academic literature on identity is widely held that identity is relational. Identity becomes relevant only in the case when there is an “Other” to compare to. From this perspective, identity building of Roma children would take place better in an ethnic diverse environment and not in an ethnic homogenous environment. Thus, the homogenous environment represents an obstacle in the identity building process and the argument presented by the opponents to Roma school desegregation is not theoretically grounded.
The homogenous environment argument is also superfluous as regard conflict mediation among pupils due to cultural differences. The capacity to prevent and mediate conflicts in the schools has rather to do with the institutional arrangements, with the norms, rules and procedures available to prevent and mediate such conflicts as well as with the training of teachers in managing ethnic diversity and not with the ethnic homogeneity of the school population. By choosing ethnic homogeneity instead of designing rules, procedures and setting up mechanism to prevent and mediate conflicts equates to putting the burden on Roma children to integrate. Thus, Roma pupils are perceived as a source of conflict, a supplementary source of mental harm for them.
Teacher training has a lot to do with their capacity to manage ethnically diverse cohorts. There is a historical tradition of pedagogy which is teacher-centered emphasizing discipline and obedience to authority. There is a need to change the focus of the pedagogy to the child, stimulating creativity, skill-development and critical thinking. Teacher training lacks skiils development in managing ethnic diversity. The knowledge of teachers working in ethnically diverse environments about Roma culture and traditions is very limited if any at all. If progress as regards teachers performances is pursued by educational policies among the important measures has to be the introduction of Roma culture and traditions as part of their initial training. This will help capacitate them to manage ethnically diverse cohorts and be sensitive to Roma culture.
But there is one crucial argument in favor of school desegregation. And this has to do with the aims of education in a 21st century society: socialization. Socialization is an important aim of education that very often is ignored by educational specialists and policy-makers. Education aims to create active citizens that could integrate on the labor market and take an active role in participating in society. A good society is one in which its members have the skills to engage with the state institutions and build cooperative relationships among them. What kind of society is the one in which a part of it cannot master the language to communicate with the majority, it has limited interaction with the majority and is isolated or isolate itself from the mainstream society? In the specific case of Roma, who are scattered all over the territory ofEurope and beyond, how will they integrate on the labor market and how will they be active citizens if they do not master the majority language? Keeping them isolated from the majority will just increase the existing gaps as regards education, housing, employments, health, poverty etc between Roma and non-Roma.
In addition, a recent study conducted by CNN among pupils in US indicate that socialization has an important role in reducing ethnic animosity and the potential for ethnic conflicts in society (see Online Report for CNN Anderson Cooper 360° Special Report “Kids on Race: The Hidden Picture” March 5, 2012). In the particular situation of Roma where the level of prejudices and stereotypes towards them is a major source of potential conflict and animosity, socialization is extremely important in diminishing the conflict potential and engaging in relations with others and with the state institutions on equal footing.
Here, the reader might understand that I favor assimilation as I am not a supporter of minority education. Let me make clear: Roma should have the possibility to study Romani and in Romani language within the educational systems inEurope. There are many forms of bilingual arrangements that might be envisaged. They have to be proud of their ethnicity as any other group in a democratic society. Hiding their ethnicity or feeling inferior due to it is an indicator that their social inclusion and participation in society is limited. But being proud of Roma ethnicity is not directly linked with minority education. On the contrary, engaging in relationships with others is a way to built and affirm their ethnic identity while respecting ethnic diversity of the society.