Tilting at Windmills

Three German parties are attempting to woo voters by standardizing the country’s highly fractured education system. Chances of success are next to nil.

„Good education is part and parcel of economic and social reason,“ said Martin Schulz, the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor, rather grandly in a recent speech. Mr. Schulz would like to reform the country’s schools by providing permanent government funding – a plan that, on the face of it, sounds sensible. But unlike elsewhere, the idea runs counter to the laws and traditions governing Germany education, and is generally a contentious topic.

Schools and universities have long been the responsibility of individual federal states, but in the run-up to next month’s general election, every party apart from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, or CDU is campaigning to upend the education system. And they all, bar the CDU, want to give the central government more control over funding.

Under Germany’s highly decentralized approach, individual states are free to determine much of what goes on in schools, from curricula to infrastructure and budgets. Efforts to foist standardization upon the states are usually met with fierce resistance; the few instances of agreement typically result from cooperation, rather than coercion. For instance, in the early 2000s, the federal states agreed to align their secondary schools with international standards, reducing schooling for college-bound pupils from 13 to 12 years. This cooperative endeavor, however, is now being abandoned in a number of states.

By contrast, the United States Department of Education can impose standards by linking federal funding to state and local reforms, and to performance benchmarks. That was the case with former President George W. Bush’s „No Child Left Behind“ program of 2001. However, Germany’s constitution doesn’t allow this kind of linkage. Even standardized tests – long a feature of US schools at all levels – are unfamiliar in Germany.

This hasn’t stopped the Green Party or the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) from drawing up detailed, standardized plans for educational reform. The Greens are seeking to increase Germany’s miserly public contribution to education from 4.2 percent of GDP to 7 percent. Chancellor Angela Merkel introduced a similar goal a few years ago, but seems to have abandoned the issue altogether.

The FDP is promising nothing less than the “world’s best education” for all, and to propel Germany into the top five countries of the Organization for Cooperation and Development in terms of national educational funding. As of 2013, Germany was in eleventh place. Compelling the individual German states to raise their educational spending, however, appears next to impossible.

Another stumbling block to reform is the crumbling infrastructure of Germany’s schools. According to a study by development bank KfW, it would cost a whopping €34 billion ($28.5 billion) to spruce up the country’s schools – and this sum doesn’t even include city-states like Berlin or Hamburg.

Plugging classrooms into the digital era is another costly project. The FDP wants to spend €1,000 per pupil on technology over the next five years, amounting to upwards of €11 billion. The Greens are seeking to distribute €10 billion on school renovations, and have earmarked another €4 billion to build new elementary schools. Meanwhile, the Left Party has promised to provide “a mobile device for every child.”

Not to be outdone, the Social Democrats want to turn the school renovation program into a full-scale modernization program. Mr. Schulz is promising to provide schools with an extra €12 billion from 2018 through 2021, if he wins in September. The CDU wants to outfit all schools with high-speed internet, a daunting task in some backward parts of the country.

So far, only two parties have broached the topic of broad structural reform. The CDU wants to retain the Gymnasium (which covers grades 5 through 12 for university-track students), while the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) prefers a multi-tiered system that would separate aspiring university students from other career groups such as tradespeople. In a nutshell, both these parties find themselves in unlikely agreement by calling for standardization, albeit to different ends, in a school system that is opaque and decentralized.

When it comes to funding university students, the Greens, Free Democrats and Social Democrats have the most feasible ideas. The FDP suggests a €500 monthly stipend-cum-loan for every student, regardless of their parents’ incomes, with automatic adjustments for cost-of-living and inflation. In the past, the student loan system was not geared to living costs, as even tiny increases can cost billions. Currently, more than one-quarter of the country’s 2.7 million college students receive government loans or grants, known as BaFög. The maximum BaFög rate is now pegged at €735 per month, with the average recipient receiving €448 monthly for the duration of their studies. Meanwhile, the SPD has pledged greater monthly payments and tax exemption limits for parents; the CDU is tight-lipped on the matter.

When it comes to financing universities, the SPD has generously proposed the conversion of the federal government’s support programs, such as BaFög, into a permanent source of funding – a move that would jibe with recent amendments to the country’s constitution. While the Left Party has expressed support for such a change, the FDP and Greens have yet to make recommendations. The CDU has made vague statements on the topic, stating that it wants to “encourage good teaching and digitally innovative universities and colleges.”

To varying extents, all the major parties have introduced measures to make it easier for young people to learn trades, both through Germany’s vaunted apprenticeships and „dual education“, whereby students split time between technical schools and private companies. The recommendations range from the creation of employment agencies geared toward young people (SPD) to discounted tickets for regional transportation for trainees, pupils and students (CDU). Considering the controversy surrounding school and university policies, tweaking Germany’s vocational training system has the greatest chance of success.

At this late stage in the campaign, renewed talk of educational funding might raise suspicions the parties are eager to buy votes. The cold, hard reality, however, is Germany’s federal government has precious little power to even steer such reforms.

Co-Autoren: Heike Anger, Barbara Gillmann

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