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A Victory for Secular Education in Italy

by TOM GILL

On May 26-27, Italy was focused on local elections in the capital Rome and other parts of the country. But in the northern, traditionally ‘red’ city of Bologna, a different popular vote was being held: a referendum to end a policy that has seen ever more scarce public funds being ploughed into private education.  The last time Italians were asked to vote on privatisation – in June 2011 in a national referendum over the sell-off of public water assets –  they voted 96% against. This time the vote – over nursery provision – was local and not as overwhelming, but nevertheless 59% came out in favour of channelling municipal funding solely to state schools.

The campaigners behind the referendum initiative should be cheered by the result. Starting with literally a handful of people, over the past few months more and more parents, teachers, trade unionists and other members of civil society groups joined the battle against myriad of powerful vested interests. They named their campaign after the key principle at stake – Articolo 33, a defence of constitutional law number 33 that lays down that state-run schools are open to all, and that public bodies and private individuals have the right to establish schools and education institutes, but this should be at no cost to the state.

State Education Starved of Funds

The context of the campaign is the collapsing Italian public school system, suffering from long term neglect, and since the 2008 economic crisis, brutal austerity cuts. Kindergartens and primary schools – providing childcare to children from a few months to six years old – have been among the hardest hit in the education sector.

Only 12% of these children are able to find a place in the stated school system. In the South, this drops to 7.5%. Where both parents are working, the lack of full-time places among state providers means the kids are sent to private nurseries (18.7% of the families in the South, 12.3% in the North and 13.6% in the Central region). These cost more than 500 euros a month in a country where the average wage is around 1,900 euros a month (millions earn much less). A disproportionate number in low paid jobs are women – so many choose to leave work to take care of their children, rather than having to shell out so much money.

Bologna and the Reggio model

The situation is not nearly as bad in Bologna. For decades Emilia Romagna’s kindergartens and primary schools have been emulated, within Italy and also across Europe. The “Reggio model” (named after the city of Reggio Emilia), developed in the 1960s, is an innovative system of public, non-religious nurseries focused on art education, team work and giving children control over the direction of their learning. Despite its success and the strong reputation of many state-run nurseries in the region, in Bologna last year there was a 16% rise in women who left their job after the birth of their first child. And many of these women said this was linked to the lack of state nursery places.

While the state system continues to face budget cuts, city government funding to private schools is on the rise. And oddly for a city that was the stronghold of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and then under the control of the Democratic Party (PD), a centre-left party, it is private and mainly Catholic schools which are being favoured.  The funding system challenged by campaigners started in the mid-1990s in local government and then guarantees to private schools for access to public funding was rolled out nationally under a centre-left administration, following legislation passed in 2000.

Profiting From Nursery Education

State funds for education, in Italy, as elsewhere, have attracted much self-serving interest. There’s big money to be made and influence to be had. Private schools can be lucrative and they are important outposts of power for the powerful Catholic church, which is the main beneficiary of public funds.

To be clear, the referendum is consultative. Its result should be taken seriously by the city government, but it cannot change policy. Furthermore, its weight depends on the number of people who voted (turnout out was around 28%). In its initial reaction, the city government  – a centre-left majority led by the Democratic Party – has used this to try and dodge the fundamental issue at stake.

However this could be risky. The 50,000 who voted to abolish state funding to private schools represent half the electorate that voted in Democrat Party mayor of Bologna, Virginio Merola, in 2011. And the poorer districts where the Democratic party is strongest, such as Borogo Panigale and San Donato, the people voted to end funding to private schools – only in the wealthy areas did the contrary vote prevail.

Public Money ‘Drugging’ Private Provision

It was in the name of this wealthy, catholic minority, in Bologna and elsewhere in the country, that a high profile media campaign was waged against the referendum by, on the centre-left, the Democrats (who, it should be noted, include former christian democrats) and on the Right, the nasty Northern League and billionaire tax evader Silvio Berlusconi, and his People of Freedom party.

The argument they peddled was that state funding to private schools would see children who currently attend private schools abandoned as the state system would not be able to cope with the increased demand. In reality, many of the kids who attend private nurseries are from well to do families and will continue being sent to them, even if fees have to go up to make up for a loss of public subsidies. Which may not be necessary if private sponsorship from mummy and daddy’s well-connected friends, or from within the Church establishment, plug that gap.

What’s more the latest figures for Bologna show that there is not only a substantial shortage of state nursery places but also a large number of unfilled places in private nurseries – evidence that private provision has been ‘drugged’ by public funds paid for by rationing in state provision. In any case, the logic of the argument pursued by the campaign’s opponents was that the Italian state cannot afford to guarantee non-religious, public education for all, regardless of the constitution. Their arguments don’t stand up, whether on principle, or the facts of the case.

Wider Implications

In the home of the Vatican, of the order of 1.5 billion euros annually is estimated to be channelled in subsidies in various guises into the Church’s private schools overall. Compare that to cuts to state education over the past four years of 3.5 billion euros. There’s money to fund state provision of all ages, it is just a political choice whether to do so or not.

The referendum’s success creates an important precedent that  could kick start a debate in Italy about a system that is funded by the taxes of the many yet that excludes the many, for the benefit of the few. Indeed, potentially a new nationwide movement in favour of non-religious state education could fuse with the broader protests against cuts in education, including in the universities, led by students, parents and teachers.

Across Europe, as spending cuts in education bite ever deeper – hitting, above all, working class kids and their life chances – privateers as well as religious and other ideologically regressive forces are pulling out the stops to protect and expand their cut of the public purse. This, small, but important victory, should provide inspiration to all progressives who want free, quality secular education for all.

Tom Gill is a London-based writer and journalist. He blogs at www.revolting-europe.com  on European affairs from a radical left perspective.

Tom Gill edits Revolting Europe.

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