02/13/2015 11:23 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2015

Rescuing Rural Schools in Poland

In the early 1990s, Poland began an overhaul of its political system that transferred considerable authority to local authorities, including ownership and management of the public schools. Local governments were suddenly responsible for paying for education from local funds. In many of the smaller, less densely populated areas, there wasn't enough money to keep the schools going. As a result, thousands of schools were closed.

There is considerable debate in Poland over how many schools were closed during this period. The government claims about 2,000, while the opposition puts the figure closer to 5,000. Alina Kozinska-Baldyga, an education advocate, estimates around 4,000.

In 1999, Kozinska-Baldyga was a teacher just starting in on a Ph.D. at the new Graduate School for Social Research in Warsaw. She received many requests from rural areas desperate to save their schools. "I still have a map that shows 800 villages from which citizens were asking for help," she told me in an interview in Warsaw in August 2013. "Closing a school in a village differs much from closing school in the city. Closing a school in the village basically means the slow degradation and decline of the entire community."

The crisis in rural education compelled her to abandon her Ph.D. and throw herself into a new project to save rural schools. "A couple of my colleagues and I started to meet in my basement and work on a plan for how we could help those people and rescue rural schools," Kozinska-Baldyga continued. "We prepared materials and wrote the statutes for the association of rural development that in fact was supposed to replace the closed school and establish a new 'citizens school.' The current regulations allowed us to apply for financial subsidies from the local government as long as the proper building was found. These types of schools are similar to charter schools in the United States. We made it possible totally by accident, and this was really wonderful. The fact that villages begun to establish associations and open schools was one of the most amazing things that had happened after 1990. At the moment around 500 to 600 schools were established as a result of this initiative."

The problem of rural schools is part of the larger crisis facing the Polish countryside. "Because I am an archeologist, I see important changes not in 10 or 20 years' perspective but more in terms of changes in civilizations," Kozinska-Baldyga told me. "A long time ago, we had a matriarchal civilization, but now we are at the last stage of a patriarchal civilization. The most visible victims of this civilization are men from rural areas. They are not educated, but they own small plots of land. These are the 'poverty farms' that allow men to have a job and not to starve but at the same time does not produce enough for market. We have 1.3 million farms, but only 300,000 produce enough to have a good position in the market economy. The rest are so small that they only allow the family to make a living but do not bring in any additional income. The only heritage this uneducated man can leave his family is this property. Moreover, he does not have a chance to find any other job."

Poland is going through a process that many European countries endured a generation or two ago. Ireland, for instance, went through a similar process of rural school consolidation, and it took advantage of the crisis to transform its educational system. It shifted the emphasis from vocational to higher education and thus prepared for the country's dramatic shift from a largely agricultural society to a successful player in the information economy. Poland can access EU funds to help in this modernization process, but it's not a change that takes place overnight.

Kozinska-Baldyga is accustomed to thinking of integrated, long-term solutions. When I met her in 1990, she was involved in an innovative multi-generational housing project called ATRIUM, a cooperative housing estate that would bring together orphans, senior citizens, disabled, and the medical staff necessary to care for this community. Twenty-four years later, we met up again and talked about the fate of this project, her views on religion and feminism, and the advantages that NGOs enjoy over political parties.

The Interview

There were some people in the government who used to engage in social welfare issues. For example, 20 years ago Jacek Kuron was one of them. When he worked in government, he had an idea of what steps should be taken in that regard.

He was visionary. But today, Poland lacks ideas, not money. Money is wasted. Trust, authority, and common sense are missing. We are currently facing a bad economic situation. It can change, however. There have been some important changes made, for example a far-reaching decentralization. Significant powers have been transferred to the local community, but without the proper budget for exercising those powers. In this situation local communities can do two things: either ask the government for help and follow their instructions or stop watching the government and turn to the citizens. In my opinion the only chance for Poland is for citizens to organize themselves.

The best area for that is education. That's what we need if we want to have a genuine democracy in Poland, and that is what I am working on. The NGO that I am working in was established in 1999 when the education reform was introduced. It's now one of the biggest of its kind in Poland. Due to the tense political situation, the government led by Jerzy Buzek (1997-2001) drafted four very quick reforms in health, administration, insurance, and education. But to understand what a small group of people and I did at that time, I'll have to explain a few things about my background.

My story starts in 1991, when I founded a school for my daughter called the "social school." These kinds of schools were established by the initiative of parents and teachers who demanded a change in the educational system. I was working at that time at the Institute of Archeology. At some point when seeing my own children going to school, I realized that Polish democracy required us to change the educational system. Although my children already finished their studies, the schooling system did not improve. The fact that my children graduated is only because I was aware of the problem and could protect them from the consequences of the poor educational system. I met good teachers, but I also met bad teachers that should be banned from the profession. The educational program, the teaching methods -- many things were wrong.

When I founded this school for my daughter and the association, I quit my job in the Institute of Archeology and started to teach. This is how my professional career took a turn. I have taught in high school for five years. Then I started to work in a Teachers College and simultaneously I was engaged in work at the Batory Foundation. The most important point in my professional career, though, was the moment when I started studies at the Graduate School for Social Research founded by George Soros. I began to understand many phenomena when I learned the theories of Karl Popper. I could not finish the Ph.D. only because I was busy with the organization that I founded in 1999.

I told my students in Teachers College that I wished that my influence on them would be at least partially as strong as the effect Popper had on Soros. "Of course you can be even a businessman if you want," I told them, "but please keep in mind what I taught you in training college." I believe my teaching influenced their future careers. A couple of students called to tell me that now they understand why I taught them those theories. I am also very grateful to Soros for giving me those four years of intellectual adventure and of meeting wise people. One of my professors was Leszek Balcerowicz, which obviously gave me a totally new perspective.

Moreover, at this school we founded the association that later established the Federation of Educational Initiatives. Although the organization does not exist anymore, it was an important initiative, especially when Buzek introduced his educational reform. The most serious effect of this reform was closing schools in small villages. Closing a school in a village differs much from closing school in the city. Closing a school in the village basically means the slow degradation and decline of the entire community. In Spain, for instance, around 2,000 rural schools had been closed, and this led to the deterioration of those villages and the exhaustion of the land. Now Spain is trying to reverse this process.

The Polish reforms had their pros and cons, like any human activity. We stressed, from the very beginning, that if it will be implemented in such short period of time it is going to have many blind spots.

Thanks to Balcerowicz?

(To read the rest of the interview, click here.)