Thursday, January 05, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, May 21, 2005


Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta

One leading national newspaper reported not long ago that some teachers and students filed a judicial review of Law No. 20/2003 on national education. They argued that basic education should be extended from elementary school to high school. They also insisted that the gradual phasing in of the 20 percent national budget allocation for education as required by the law was hampering the realization of free education for all. They appeared to press for the "now-or-never" implementation of the budget allocation.

In another case, Nurlaila, a teacher at SMP 56 junior high school in Jakarta, together with parents, students and other teachers, led a protest against a land-swap deal between the Ministry of National Education and PT Tata Disantara. The protesters claimed this deal, which led to the closure of the school, was riddled with irregularities (The Jakarta Post, May 12, 2005).

I also encountered during my research, we have witnessed the mushrooming of non-governmental organizations founded by teachers and educators that are often critical of the government's education policies.

Whether or not they provide well-reasoned arguments for their criticism is another story. What is important here is Christopher Bjork's (2003) research indicating that the role of teachers in Indonesia as mere "transmitters" of knowledge has gradually begun to break down. Teachers' awareness of their social role has not only emerged, but has also begun to be put into action as "teacher activism".

There are some points worth considering here.

First, teachers are increasingly aware that they can be a force to be reckoned with and that education can function as an influential agent of social change. The old paradigm that schools are merely instructional sites and that education is and should be separated from sociopolitical aspects has steadily vanished.

Second, the challenge derives from the fact that schools represent arenas of contest and struggle among differentially empowered cultural and economic groups. Teachers are under pressure to generate and accommodate various competing aspirations within society, meaning equal treatment in the form of the involvement of students and parents regardless of their background is imperative in giving weight to the credibility of their movement.

Third, teachers should further use this opportunity to inject this new spirit in students. Involving students in the judicial process of the education law must have been a stimulating experiment, indeed, but this should also be accompanied by nurturing this spirit in a more pedagogically responsible manner in class.

After declaring themselves "new democrats", teachers' democratic values should be reflected when teaching and dealing with students.

Fourth, teachers' organizations must be "immune" from any vested interests and must be able -- together with concerned lawmakers -- to effectively balance and apply pressure on the government. The idea that non-governmental organizations often end up being subjected to vested interests is still widespread in this country.

During my fieldwork, for example, I encountered two new teachers' organizations that had splintered off from the once-government supported Indonesian Teachers Union (PGRI). One of them vanished in about a year due to a dispute among its members. The remaining organization grouped private teachers who were disappointed with the PGRI, which was dominated by government teachers. However, just before I finished my fieldwork, the chairman of the organization ran for the local legislature as a member of the then ruling political party.

Another teacher activist from the private sector successfully became chairman of the education board in Jakarta, but the supposedly independent body was never effective because its members from the private and government factions became entangled in a dispute over the members' election results.

Teacher activism therefore strongly demands idealism on the part of teachers in avoiding short-term political gains and in resisting political pressure. But can teachers consistently uphold such idealism amid their below-standard pay and professionalism and the lure of and pressure from political power?

One may doubt it. But among the cases I observed, only SMP 56 is different, with Nurlaila left alone fighting for justice as parents and other teachers compromised and accepted the closure of the school. Nurlaila was fired, losing her position as a civil servant, and is now suing Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso for her dismissal. The land-swap deal itself is now before the Supreme Court as both the South Jakarta District Court and a higher court threw out a civil suit against the Ministry of National Education and the private company involved in the deal (The Jakarta Post, May 12, 2005).

But how many Nurlailas do we have? Certainly not many. As the aforementioned cases show, while being critical over education policy is undeniably needed because our education system is still dogged with entrenched problems, it is also equally important that teachers critically reflect on what has been achieved, assist each other in enhancing professional development, identify factual and common problems and back this up with solid arguments, and launch more organized campaigns to achieve the just and quality education system to which we all aspire.

Without this strong commitment and awareness, teacher activism may end up being hijacked by short-term interests or bending to political pressure. And more Nurlailas might end up being victimized.

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