First published in The Jakarta Post, May 8, 2005
DECENTRALIZATION OF EDUCATION OFTEN MISINTERPRETED
Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Sydney
In his article published on The Jakarta Post on April 16, Mateus Yumarmanto raised concern that the government had adopted an approach that groups schoolchildren according to their intellectual abilities and the financial capacity of their parents.
According to him, this is against the principle that the competency of all students should meet minimum national standards. Second, according to the writer, this is also against the policy of a nine-year compulsory education, which implies that the government should provide basic education for all children regardless of their intellectual and financial levels.
Education minister Bambang Sudibyo said this was not yet policy, but merely an "internal discourse" that had leaked out to the public.
He said the government would consistently stick to Education Law 20/2003, which divides the path into formal, nonformal and informal education.
However, the draft of the education ministry's Strategic Plan for 2005-2009 and the would-be government regulation state that formal education would further be divided into mandiri (independence) and standar (standard). The mandiri is for students who have high intellectual ability and come from financially sound families, while the standar is for students with less intellectual capacity and who come from less financially sound families.
Certainly, these categorizations could be insulting for some. Who wants to be labeled "poor" or "stupid"? Besides, these categorizations are too simplistic. How about those intelligent students who come from poor families, and those students who are not so academically gifted but come from wealthier families?
I would argue that this is all due to the "excessive" misinterpretation of the principles of education decentralization.
As the collapse of the New Order regime also brought down with it the highly centralized education system, a decentralized education system was introduced. Karslen (2000) and McGinn and Wells (1999) outline the advantages of education decentralization, such as releasing the central authority from a s financial burden and increasing local participation.
Unfortunately, this has further been interpreted as releasing the central authority from its "total" financial burden and "total" local participation. As a result, families are now bearing the main responsible for their children's education, particularly with regard to the financial aspects. Simultaneously, the government is gradually "washing its hands" of education by shifting its responsibilities into the hands of parents.
If this trend continues, a segregated society is inevitable. During my research fieldwork, some rich parents whose children were studying at a successful and "rich" school already held the view that a segregated society was somehow "acceptable".
How can you expect my children to be sent to a low-quality school when I have enough money to send her to this school? Less financially capable parents whose children were studying at less successful and "poorer" school said, "We have no choice although my son is smart enough!"
Their arguments are logical, but given the fact that decentralization is linked to "marketization" in which schools are increasingly competing against one another despite their differing conditions, this trend, if unchecked, might lead to a widening gap between "rich" and "poor" schools and further divide society.
This is perhaps what pushed the government to simplistically divide formal education into mandiri and standar classes, thus "legitimizing" the increasingly segregated society and dangerously encouraging discrimination.
One can learn from Chile and Spain, which decentralized their education systems while moving from authoritarianism to democracy. Much of Chile's success reflects an effective arrangement of state and private forces, in which the ministry of education plays a strong role in protecting the vulnerable and assuring quality.
Indeed, increased competition among schools will encourage quality education, and increased local participation will enhance people's awareness of education. But this does not mean the government should abdicate its responsibilities and let the competition segregate society, let alone structurally place the poor, both "financially and intellectually", into a separate assembly line!
A quasi-market approach has therefore been proposed to combine both market and bureaucratic procedures in which the government should act as a wise mediator to ensure that the force of marketization will not devour the poor. While letting the people decide what level of education is best for them, the government should somehow facilitate the process without forcing people to be grouped into "special classes".
One way to achieve this is by ensuring that the plan to utilize the money saved from the slashed fuel subsidy to provide free education within the framework of a nine-year compulsory education is fully endorsed and implemented. Regardless of their differing backgrounds, let all students compete and strive for excellence!