Imagine there were a virus spreading across Europe that severely impeded young children’s intellectual and physical development. The disease was so debilitating that children afflicted by it could never hold responsible jobs or be productive members of society. They would have to be cared for by the state for life.
By Leslie Hawke, president of Ovidiu Rom association
And what if the children who were most susceptible were the fastest growing segment of society? There was no cure for this disease, once contracted, but there was a vaccine to prevent it. How would such a crisis be dealt with by the European Union and its member states?
This is the current situation of children of Roma descent throughout the EU. The disease is Lack of Education. The antidote is high-quality early education. It is an established fact that children’s brains do not develop as they should in deprived environments. Study after study has shown that early education reduces “the probability of children being retained in a grade, needing special education, dropping out of school, being unemployed, and being incarcerated.”
As France and Romania play human ping-pong, hundreds of thousands of children are getting even less schooling than their parents received a generation ago. Another whole generation of Roma is going to be unemployable unless they start school at the same age as other European children.
French law mandates that all children must attend school from age three. According to a recent NPR (National Public Radio, US) report, “In France, 100 percent of three, four and five-year-olds attend preschool. So everyone starts first grade on an equal footing.”
That’s actually not true. Most Roma children in France are not enrolled in early education programs – and for the older children in families that are “repatriated” to Romania, the process of transferring them from the French to the Romanian system is complicated at best, and tortuous when parents are functionally illiterate – and the authorities are not particularly cooperative. (Frequently, the children either lack transfer documents or their foreign records are not recognized by Romanian school directors.)
Romania, like France, has perfectly adequate children’s rights legislation – but the laws designed to protect and empower the marginalized are not implemented or enforced. The Romanian constitution declares that public education is free – yet a report last week from Save the Children concluded that the annual median parent expenditure on “free” education is about 500 euros. No wonder Roma parents often postpone their children’s enrolment as long as possible (until age 8-9). Interestingly, the law that makes schooling mandatory from age 6-7 is not implemented, but the law that prevents registration of a child over the age of nine is strictly enforced.
Instead of playing the blame game, EU member states should be actively registering for preschool all Roma children residing in their country. A strategy well worth considering is one that is currently being implemented with American dollars in 20 Romanian communities. It’s simple: The local authorities register every child between the age of 4 and 6 (next year it will be 3-6) in preschool and provide appropriate clothes and other essentials on an as-needed basis. Parents under the poverty line receive 12 euros a month in food coupons if their children have perfect attendance. Registrations and attendance have increased dramatically in the communities where this strategy is being applied.
Economic analyses have demonstrated that the money invested in quality early education yields a rate of return from three to ten times the original investment. The World Bank estimated in April that one billion euros a year is lost in productivity and tax revenues as a result of the unemployment and under-employment of the Roma – in Romania alone; across the continent the estimate runs to over five billion. This can’t possibly be reversed unless EU member states address the Roma education gap with the same conviction and resolve they would a lethal disease.
This open letter was published in full on The Economist, on its online blog called Eastern Approaches here.
 Linda Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education, p.34. NY, Teachers College Press, 2010.
 Reynolds & Temple, “Economic returns of investments in preschool education” in Zigler, Gilliam & Jones A Vision for Universal Pre-school Education (pp.37-68) NY, Cambridge University Press 2006.