Teachers' protests add to growing pressure on Polish gov't

AP News
Posted: Oct 10, 2016 9:09 AM

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Teachers in Poland staged protests Monday over a government plan to overhaul the public school system, putting added pressure on the conservative ruling party that has already been facing growing criticism both domestically and internationally.

The Polish Teachers' Union called on teachers and parents to protest in 17 towns across the country Monday afternoon to show their opposition to a government plan that would eliminate middle schools. The union says the plan would introduce chaos into the Polish educational system and cause class sizes to grow. Teachers also fear it will lead many of them to lose their jobs, though the Education Ministry says it won't.

In Warsaw, teachers, joined by parents and some trade union activists, gathered under umbrellas in the rain and accused the government of refusing to take their concerns into account.

"These reforms are bad and until they are changed there will be protests," vowed Jan Guz, the leader of the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions.

The government wants to do away with the current model, which comprises six years of primary school, three years of middle school and three years of high school, and return to an older system of eight years of primary school followed by either four years of high school or five years of vocational school.

Tomasz Korczak, a teacher and the chairman of the teachers' union for Mazowiecki, the region where Warsaw is, told The Associated Press that he and many other teachers see no reason for the changes, which he says will be hugely disruptive and hurt both students and teachers.

"We think the educational system can't take revolution, just evolution," Korczak said. "Revolution in education can only be harmful."

Last week massive protests by women dressed in black put the ruling Law and Justice party on the defensive, prompting its lawmakers to overwhelmingly reject a total ban on abortion that many in the party had been favorable to just days earlier. The government has also been facing accusations of cronyism in recent weeks, a problem for a party that has long pledged to fight corruption.

Poland last week also angered France by suddenly scrapping a multibillion-euro deal to buy French-made military helicopters. French President Francois Hollande reacted by canceling a planned visit to Warsaw this week.

Given the new tensions with France, Poland now finds itself increasingly isolated within the European Union — its staunchest ally is now the increasingly authoritarian Hungary.

Poland has also angered Germany with its defiant opposition to taking refugees from the Middle East, helping to doom a plan that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had pushed for. The ruling conservatives had prioritized ties with Britain, an alliance which can't help them much within the EU now that that country is planning to exit the union — though the partnership in the area of defense and security remains strong.

At home, there have been street protests off and on since Law and Justice took power last November, mostly over efforts to weaken the judiciary as a check on government power, but only now is the party starting to see its support dip. A poll conducted last week by Millward Brown for the private broadcaster TVN showed 30 percent support for the party, down from 37 percent in late May. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Despite the growing opposition, the party's hold on power is firm for now. It has a majority in parliament, parliamentary elections aren't for three more years and the opposition is weak and divided.