“The story of David and Goliath, Ulysses and Polyphemus, Beowulf and Grendel” is how the writer collective Wu Ming describes the struggles of the Articolo 33 committee in Bologna in an article in the Internazionale magazine.
The Articolo 33 committee was set up in 2011 and includes associations, “grassroots” unions, part of the CGIL (the main Italian left-wing union), social and political movements, parents’ committees, and education workers. They are all focused on a common goal: the application of constitutional law number 33. This lays down that public (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. The Articolo 33 committee believes that this part of Italian constitutional law is no longer worth the paper it is written on.
Hit badly by the “reforms” which are actually cuts in budgets and staffing, the Italian public school system is suffering enormously. Particularly damaged by these cuts are kindergartens and primary schools which provide childcare to children from a few months to six years old. Nationally, only 12% of these children are able to find a place in the public school system. In the South, the percentage drops to 7.5%. When both parents are working, children have to go to private nurseries (18.7% of the families in the South,12.3% in the North and 13.6% in the Central region) which cost more than 500 euros a month. Many of those women who earn very little choose to leave work to take care of their children, rather than having to pay so much money.
The situation is much better in Bologna than in other parts of Italy. For decades the Emilia Romagna region has been considered a model to emulate, within Italy and also across Europe, especially with regard to kindergartens and primary schools. The “Reggio model” (named after the city of Reggio Emilia) was developed in the 1960s. It is an innovative system of public, non-religious nurseries based on art education, team work and the direct involvement of children in the management of lessons, and has been recognised and adopted worldwide.
Despite its successful history and the high reputation of many public nurseries in the region, in 2012 Bologna saw an increase of 16% of women leaving their job after the birth of their first child. Many of these said this was connected to the lack of public nursery places.
Whilst the public school system continues to be subjected to budget cuts, city government funding to private schools is increasing. In fact, in the city which has been left-wing for so long, first as the stronghold of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and then under the control of the Democratic Party (PD), it is private and mainly Catholic schools which are being favoured. As Wu Ming explains, local government in the mid-90s introduced the “integrated” system, a system that guaranteed private school access to public funding. This system, at first a local experiment by a centre-left administration, was then rolled out nationally by a centre-left government, thanks to a law passed in 2000.
The Articolo 33 committee has started a petition for a city referendum, in opposition to a similar system and asking for the abolition of public funding to private schools. The number of signatures required was 9,000 and the committee collected 13,000. The referendum will be held in Bologna on May 26, 2013. The committee’s campaign opened on March 23 in the city’s main square (at the same time as the migrants’ protest against the Bossi-Fini immigration law was marching through the city streets).
The referendum is consultative and does not directly concern the abolition of public funding to private schools. Its result will give guidance to the city government rather than change the rules. Furthermore, the referendum does not require a quorum which means that the resulting guidelines would change depending on the number of people who voted. The city government (which has a centre-left majority led by the Democratic Party) could use this to avoid any real discussion about the subject.
There is a great deal of interest in the education market. Private schools can generate high profits and are important outposts of power for the Catholic church, the main beneficiary of the “integrated” system. This explains why the referendum is seen as a threat, both locally and nationally. If the referendum should succeed in asking for the removal of public funding of private schools it would create an important precedent which would restart the debate about the integrated system a debate which the national government might not be able to ignore. That is why interests in favour of the “integrated” system (both left and right) have launched a media campaign against its possible abolition with, at times, almost apocalyptic overtones: the claim is that, without public funding, children who go to private schools will be abandoned by education as the public system cannot cope with increased demand. Another way of saying this is that the Italian state cannot guarantee non-religious, public education for all, despite what the constitution says. And to deal with this, the state is providing financial support to the private system which returns the favour in other ways (for example, by supporting political parties).
Even the 5 Stars Movement, which says it champions lack of corruption and has a strong view about the waste of public resources, is ambiguous about the referendum, focusing attention on its consultative nature.
On May 26, an important battle will be fought from which a new nation-wide movement in favour of the non-religious, public school could emerge. The cuts to the public education system in the last few years have generated large protests from students, parents and teachers, struggles which have not yet achieved any significant victories. Perhaps this will be the day that David succeeds in finally defeating Goliath.