Right to Education – for Charge or Free of Charge?
Section 37 of the Estonian Constitution provides the right to education without tuition fee in state and local government general education schools. It is an important fundamental right of an individual but its substantial essence tends to receive little attention in everyday political and social discussions.
However, the cost of providing education free of charge is often an object of discussion in Estonia as well as elsewhere. In the majority of European countries, not only basic education but also secondary education is available free of charge. In the complicated economic circumstances, the Estonian state has to analyse seriously how to perform public functions most effectively. Privatisation of the education system may, but need not, save state expenses. The Estonian state has to guarantee the availability of education free of charge for children and it has no opportunity to back out on this obligation.
The Constitution guarantees the right to education without tuition fee but it does not regulate with sufficient precision which content this right should have. The right provided in § 37 of the Constitution should not remain a mere declaration but the issues relating to education free of charge should be clearly regulated in the legislation of lower level than the Constitution.
Besides the Constitution, guaranteeing of education free of charge to children is also required of Estonia by several international conventions. The right to education free of charge should not be formulated in too general terms because if, for example, only studying is free of charge for children but a fee is charged for other essential services related to schooling, then it may still be too demanding for parents to send their children to school and, consequently, the state has failed to guarantee to a sufficient extent the right to obtain education free of charge to children.
The state may use different patterns for ensuring availability of education free of charge but it has to provide in its legislation the legal guarantees sufficient for achieving the goal of availability of education free of charge.
There are private schools in Estonia but, according to the legislation which is currently in force, a fee is charged for the study provided in them. Estonia does not guarantee parents total right to choose in that regard because not until the right to choose can be realised independently of financial obligations is it possible to speak of the existence of the right to choose. The state might consider increased support to private schools in the future and thereby extending the parents’ right to choose; however, requiring of tuition fee at the private schools supported by the state should be precluded by legislation.
Until then, municipal and state schools continue to provide education free of charge. Unfortunately, a “creeping privatisation” has emerged in the education system in recent years where a charge may be established for everything which does not have to be directly free of charge according to law. Such “creeping privatisation” is not in the interests of children and parents although it may bring about remarkable savings to local governments or the state.
The new Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act might define clearly what should be deemed to be included in the concept “right to education without tuition fee”.