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Analysis & Opinion
20.06.11 Good School, Bad School
By Svetlana Kononova

Primary and secondary education in Russia is in the spotlight once again after the Russian State Duma approved amendments to the federal law “On Education.” The draft proposes to enact school districting to govern student enrolment beginning on January 1, 2012. At the same time, the Supreme Court has reenacted the old system governing first-graders’ enrolment in Moscow, which gives priority to children living near schools, orphans, children from poor families and children whose siblings already attend the same school. The system was earlier abolished by the Moscow Prosecutors’ office as a violation of the Russian Constitution’s guarantee to equal rights.

Commenting on the court’s decision, the Russian Minister of Education and Science Andrei Fursenko pointed out that a return to the old system of school enrolment won’t prevent children from studying at schools located in other districts. “Children have a right to be enrolled in nearby schools in the first case, but it doesn’t mean that it is strictly prohibited for them go to other schools. Nonetheless, there are some restrictions,” he told journalists at last week’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

The idea to enforce school districting is often seen as an attempt to protect the interests of children from low-income families living near prestigious public schools. Primary and secondary education in Russia is free, but the quality of education in Russian schools varies widely. The distinction between good and bad schools is especially visible in Moscow, where there is cutthroat competition for enrolment in popular schools. Parents of future first-graders storm these schools beginning in April, when registration and pre-enrolment kicks off. In many cases schools give priority to children whose parents have relatively high incomes and can afford to pay for extra lessons and services.

The alternative to the lines and nerve-racking competition for spots at public schools are Russia’s private schools. There are about 700 private schools in Russia, of which 250 are located in Moscow and about 50 more in the Moscow Region. The advantages of private schools are numerous: smaller class sizes (12 to 15 pupils on average) allow for a more individualized approach to educating children, including the so-called “problem cases,” as well as full boarding programs and advanced study of foreign languages and other popular subjects such as math, economics and art.

Nonetheless, few parents in Russia use this alternative. Only about five percent of the nation’s schoolchildren study at private schools, mainly because most parents can’t afford the tuition. The cost of primary and secondary education at Moscow’s private schools varies from $600 per month in the city’s middle-class suburbs to $3,000 per month in prestigious districts in the city center and luxury suburbs such as Rublyovka and Zhukovka. Prices in the regions further afield from Moscow are lower, but are still unaffordable for most residents.

As a result of the high cost of education at private schools, competition for placement in Russia’s better public schools is increasing. However, both experts and parents are quite skeptical about the possible solutions to this problem presented by school districting. “Any rigid fixing of enrollment means restrictions on freedom. It leads to the limitation of educational opportunities for children. Why should a child have to study in the nearest ordinary school if he has a gift for math and wants to be enrolled in a school that provides better education in that subject, for example? The experience of Moscow has shown that many parents don’t support this system,” said Lyubov Dukhanina, the vice chairman of the Public Chamber's Commission on Educational Development. “The ideal solution to the problem would be if the education programs offered by all schools met the citizens’ demands. If that happened, the lines for enrolment would disappear,” she added.

Galina Shneyder, the leader of a movement called “Moscow Parents,” is also against restrictions in school enrollment. “Giving priority to children who live near certain schools seems sensible. But if there are spots available in the school, there shouldn’t be any restrictions for pupils from other districts,” she said.

Most likely, school districting will not yield benefits for low-income families because free primary and secondary education is slowly becoming only “partly free.” “Most afterschool programs and student clubs at Moscow schools have been transformed from free to paid this year. Beginning on September 1 schools may announce obligatory fees for some classes. Some schools have already notified parents about this, but the general situation is still unclear,” said Shneyder.

Moreover, a rigid system binding enrolment in certain schools to the place of residence might also pose an additional problem for children who don’t have official registration in Moscow. According to various estimates, from one to three million unregistered migrants live in the Russian capital, taking into account both foreigners and internal migrants. Their children often face discrimination during the education enrollment period. “The Constitution of the Russian Federation gives the right to education to all children regardless of their registration status or even citizenship. In practice, it is very difficult for newcomers to place their children in Moscow schools,” said a statement from Nemoskvichi.ru, a virtual community which provides support and advice to newcomers in Moscow. It is unlikely that such children would be granted priority enrollment even if they live near certain schools, while they would undoubtedly face additional problems if the proposed system comes into effect.
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