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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The State vs. Education

One of the pieces of legislation that was waiting when the State Duma opened its latest session was a draft law by the Federation Council's Committee on Science, Culture and Education entitled On Amending and Supplementing the Russian Federation's Law On Education. Needless to say, with Russia's political and economic turmoil, this bill is low on the list of priorities, and it still has not come up for consideration.

However, if this draft does indeed become law -- and there is every reason to think that it will -- it will result in nothing less than the end of business for all of the country's private schools, kindergartens and institutes. It would bring to a halt all the progress these institutions have made in helping this country overcome the decades of uniform Soviet "enlightenment," during which all students across the country would simultaneously write out the same dictation or read the same paragraph in the official textbook.

This, at least, is the unanimous opinion of the directors of Russia's private educational establishments, who held their fifth annual conference in Moscow recently. This is also the opinion expressed in an analysis forwarded to the Duma by the Pskov Free University. These experts were clearly caught by surprise by the proposed legislation, which was introduced so quietly that neither the press nor the educational establishment knew anything about it. Even the Education Ministry has announced that it has nothing to do with the draft.

The committee's proposal would require any educational establishment to acquire a license, which would be issued only to those that meet two strict requirements. First, licensed establishments must own their own facilities. Second, no more than 30 percent of their teaching staff can simultaneously hold other jobs.

Currently only one school in the entire country -- on Sakhalin island -- owns its own space, largely because federal law prohibits the privatization of state-owned educational facilities. All other private schools and kindergartens rent classroom space in accord with the current law on education.

The second condition is equally absurd. All private educational establishments, especially schools and kindergartens, are extremely small. So far, there are just not enough children ready and able to attend them. As a result, wages for instructors are low, and virtually all of them continue to teach in state schools or to hold other jobs.

But the heaviest blow against private education is the fact that the draft law eliminates the current provision that state-accredited private schools are eligible to receive federal and municipal financial aid. Many private schools and kindergartens are able to survive only because federal and local governments provide funding for basic education.

Such funding is, of course, fully justified. After all, the parents of students who want their children to study in smaller classes or to have a chance to study foreign languages are also taxpayers, just like the parents of children attending state schools. They should have the right to take their tax money together with their children and have it benefit the schools their children actually attend.

Participants in the latest private education conference visited a number of private schools in Moscow, including the Prigov School. This small school, with only 162 pupils, has been fortunate. It was founded five years ago and was able to rent two floors of a dilapidated state school for a very reasonable rate. Nonetheless administrators affirm that if Moscow stopped subsidizing basic education, the school would have to close down immediately.

The parents of Prigov's students are mostly teachers, doctor and engineers. Their average income is about 200,000 rubles a month. Nonetheless, they are willing to spend about 30,000 rubles a month to send their children to Prigov, where they can study in an atmosphere completely unlike the one found in state schools.

The Prigov School, like many private schools, also runs a free program for children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities. In fact, private schools often play the crucial role of literally saving children who cannot benefit from the strict, monotonous teaching methods of our still Sovietized state schools.

It makes one wonder what reason anyone could have for attacking these schools, which are attended by only 0.015 percent of Russian children. One would think that society would be happy to have these schools take on at least some of the burden under which the state schools must labor. One would think that people would be pleased with the jobs these facilities create for Russia's underpaid educators, as well as for other unemployed workers.

Who would want to create such inequitable conditions for private schools? After all, state schools receive accreditation automatically, without even being inspected or having to meet any set standards.

Naturally, this attack is no accident. The assault on private education is merely part of a much larger war by the state on private initiative in all areas. Also under attack are private farms and privately owned newspapers.

It is not even a matter of money. No one thinks it is possible to make a living, much less get rich, by opening a private school in Russia. The only issue here is independence itself -- most of all, independence from government bureaucrats. It simply does not seem to be good enough for our Soviet -- now, Russian -- bureaucrats if a citizen is simply law-abiding, a faithful taxpayer, a responsible member of society. No, the bureaucracy demands that everyone constantly seek its permission for everything. The persecution of Russia's private schools is yet another sign that we are returning to the times that seemed completely behind us back in August 1991. And that is a serious matter, indeed.

Irina Ovchinnikova is a reporter for Izvestia. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.