What is to be done about the Roma?

Newsroom 15/10/2007 | 15:27

What kind of job does a person with a fourth grade education qualify for?
I have been a close observer of the day to day lives of impoverished people of Roma descent for the past seven years – much closer than many of the Roma “leaders”, who tend not to spend much time in urban ghettos where most of their constituency lives.
I have become deeply disenchanted with the ability of the Roma NGOs and the Roma Party to effect substantive change on their own. With a few noteworthy exceptions, neither the NGOs nor the Party have built a genuine support base among their two million fellow Roma citizens. Nor have they shown a desire to work effectively with the Romanian authorities. Every issue is posed in terms of conflict, with the problems defined very narrowly in terms of “segregation”, “discrimination” and “disrespect for Roma culture”.
There is no question but that prejudice plays an enormous role in keeping the Roma marginalized. But the education gap is not due to Roma attending separate, inferior schools, nor to a pervasive language barrier. (Romani is the native tongue of only about 8 percent of Roma in Romania. The Romani proponents claim that 40 percent are bilingual – but they are referring to 40 percent of the 500,000 people who self-identify as Roma.)
The education gap is because most Roma children enter school late and drop out early.
In Dambovita County, the village of Balteni is divided into two parts. The 700 highly traditional Roma live on the east side where a four-room health clinic has been constructed with EU funds. The 900 ethnic Romanians live on the west side where the church and the school are located. Between the two is a 1.6 km dirt road. The Roma parents are understandably reluctant to send their younger children on foot to the other side in order to attend school. When Ovidiu Rom conducted our summer school in the Roma health clinic – with the blessing and encouragement of the Romanian mayor and principal, as well as that of the Roma moms and dads – attendance and enthusiasm were extraordinarily high.
But how will these five and six year olds get to school this winter? According to the mayor, the community has a van that can be used but no money for a driver or petrol. But unless someone, such as Ovidiu Rom, comes up with funds to resolve the transportation problem, the children simply won't go to kindergarten. And they probably won't enter first grade until they are 8 or 9, and even then, when it rains or snows, or looks like it might rain or snow, they won't go to school, and when they finish fourth grade at the age of 13 or 14, they will quit. And no one will care. The Romanians will say, “See, they don't value education” and the Roma elite will say, “See, they're still discriminating against us.”
The education gap in Romania is not the result of Roma Culture, with a capital C, but rather a culture of poverty in collusion with systemic neglect. Wherever Ovidiu Rom has initiated our programs – which are dedicated to removing the barriers to education, like lack of school supplies, clothes, lunch money, transportation, and sometimes overtly prejudiced teachers, the children come to school – at times to the chagrin of those who would rather not be bothered by the sudden influx of so many squirmy, poorly clad little bodies.
I maintain that the fundamental flaw is the logistical failure of the Romanian educational system to serve the Roma – as well as the rural poor in general. What can be done about it? Utilize EU structural funds to implement the following measures which will help all poor children in Romania and consequently avoid ethnic resentments from developing:

1. Compulsory UNIVERSAL kindergarten from 5 years of age. (To make this reality will require (1) construction (there simply aren't enough kindergarten classrooms for all children, so inevitably the Roma children lose out), (2) teacher training & resources, and (3) parent education – most Roma, and many poor ethnic Romanians, do not begin formal education until age 7-9. This is a custom, not a value-laden tradition, and our success in recruiting younger kids for school demonstrates it is an easy habit to change.)
2. Annual neighborhood school registration drives in poor neighborhoods;
3. Trained school mediators budgeted to every poor neighborhood;
4. National summer school preparation programs for all disadvantaged children;
5. Incentives to low-income families for (1) early enrollment and (2) 80 percent attendance;
6. Free school materials, uniforms and hot lunch program, and transportation for low income families;
7. Enforcement of the existing education law that states that every child must be in school for 10 years (or until 16);
8. Engagement of established local NGOs in the implementation and monitoring of the measures listed above.
9. Local Administration Accountability for implementing these measures.
10. Withholding of government funds for non-compliance. (NB: desegregation laws in the US only became widely enforced when Federal funds were withdrawn from states that did not comply.)

If these measures are intelligently implemented, the gap in educational achievement between the majority population and the Roma will dramatically diminish. That won't solve all the problems of the Romanian education system – but it will solve one of the thorniest. The education gap is a problem that Romania ignores at its own peril.

Leslie Hawke

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