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Polish teachers go on strike over controversial education reform

Many teachers are worried about losing their jobs, and parents expect chaos in the school system. Polish teachers have gone on strike for the first time since 2008. The fight over education reform could be a long one.

Polish teachers hit back at the government on Friday as schools across the country went on strike. Poland's ZNP teachers' association had been preparing for the work stoppage for months. At the same time, the association also managed to collect enough signatures (600,000) to force a referendum on the government's proposed education reform. Teachers are among the most well-organized professional groups in the country, and many Polish citizens are empathetic to their concerns.

Thousands of teachers came to school but did not hold class. The teachers' association said 37 percent of schools in the country participated. Teachers even went on strike in many schools in the Subcarpathia region, where the ruling national-conservative party has its most loyal voter base. Even the public television channel TVP, which has close ties to the administration, reported extensively and fairly about the protests during Thursday news broadcasts ahead of the work stoppage.

polen Zehntausende demonstrieren in Polen gegen geplante Schulreform (Getty Images/AFP/J. Skarzynski)

Concern over school reform: too much, too quickly, too rash?

Repealing the three-year diploma  

The main reason for the protests is the education reform set to be implemented this fall. In 1999, the two-stage school system was replaced with a three-stage system; now the old system is to be reimplemented: The plan calls for general schooling (8 years), followed by four years of high school (or vocational school). Secondary school, which had existed between the two, will now be discontinued. The government says that it brought nominal educational benefits and actually harmed job opportunity. On the other hand, results for the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) have greatly improved.

Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Poles support the reform. But there are also very good reasons to oppose it. Many parents believe that the reform was poorly prepared and hastily pushed forward. The ZNP claims that some 37,000 teachers could lose their full-time jobs and be forced to work less. The association is calling for job guarantees as well as pay raises.

Trouble and higher costs

Should the reform be enacted, it will mean a lot of trouble and adjustments for all those affected. Thousands of schools will be forced to close, to expand, or to shrink - teachers and students will have to be shuffled around among districts. Many communities have already begun to modify their schools to conform to the new system, though some have done so with mixed emotions.

polen Zehntausende demonstrieren in Polen gegen geplante Schulreform (Getty Images/AFP/J. Skarzynski)

Just months ago, thousands people in Poland protested against the planned school reforms

One such school is in the city of Zielona Gora (Green Mountain) in Lower Silesia. The city council recently appealed directly to ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski: "Our beautiful city will be forced to spend 20 million zloty (roughly 5 million euros, $5.3 million) more than planned, simply because of the reform. That means that we will have to take funds from other areas, such as parks, streets and sidewalks." The city council went on to write that "among intelligent people it is not a flaw to admit to a mistake."

Referendum likely

The last best hope of those opposed to the reform is the referendum. It is to contain one simple question: "Are you against the education reform that the government will introduce on September 1?" Since the required threshold of 500,000 signatures has been met, parliament must now deal with the request. It can of course deny the referendum, but that would be an embarrassment to the PiS. During Poland's 2015 elections, the party never tired of accusing its predecessor of conveniently "forgetting" referendum applications. 

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