Segregation at berlin schools: it’s better to go straight to a private school

In Berlin, many parents are reluctant to send their children to schools with a high percentage of immigrants. The result: booming private schools.

In Berlin, one in ten students goes to a private school (archive photo) Photo: dpa

There’s one problem that the German school system is not getting over: equal opportunities, and it just won’t get any better. The parental home still determines educational opportunities. If the parents did not study, the child is relatively unlikely to do so either. Those with an immigrant background have a statistically higher risk of ending up as a school dropout. In Berlin, the results of the state-wide performance comparisons in the third grades were recently published again – the fact that children with a mother tongue other than German perform worse in reading, writing and arithmetic has not changed for years: nothing.

Yet policymakers are making a concerted effort to compensate for this injustice. In Berlin, for example, there is a bonus program that "schools in difficult situations" can use to finance extra hours of social work. And if there is a government, the Grand Coalition wants to set up a federal-state program to jointly strengthen disadvantaged schools.

The problem is that the program is being used to treat the symptoms of educational injustice without tackling the causes. For example, the fear of academic middle-class parents of the ordinary neighborhood school with its high percentage of migrants and (often supposedly) bad reputation. If anything cements unequal opportunities, it’s segregation.

In Berlin, private schools are booming. Every tenth student in Berlin now goes to a private school. There are very different independent schools: The small school with 40 students in Kreuzberg, run by an alternative parents’ initiative. And the noble cadre school in Mitte or in the southwest of the city, where the question is at most whether one also wants to take the Abitur in the French version.

What they all seem to have in common is that the proportion of children from poorer families at most of these schools is vanishingly small – at least, that’s what a response from the Senate Department for Education to a question from the ranks of the SPD parliamentary group in Berlin’s House of Representatives suggests. At the 77 most popular independent schools in Berlin, the proportion of students whose families receive assistance from the job center is just 3.5 percent. The Berlin-wide average of so-called learning aid-exempt students is about 35 percent – ten times as high.

It is disputed whether these figures are really meaningful: Principals of two independent schools tell the taz that they do not calculate this rate at all – and then still appear in the statistics with a zero. What they both say, however, is that the parents who are interested in their schools have one thing in particular: an interest in school, in education. And that this is not necessarily linked to a full bank account.

Social mix through school funding?

Nevertheless, the parliamentary groups of the SPD and the Greens in the Berlin House of Representatives want to base the future financing of independent schools on the income of parents – in order to force more "social mix" in the independent schools. The Green Party submitted a motion calling for "significantly higher" subsidies for independent schools, plus a bonus for those schools that are "committed to social and inclusive opening." The SPD has the same goal, but favors "a graduated model that rewards social mix," its education policy spokeswoman Maja Lasić told the taz. In plain language: Those who, on paper, have too few children from poorer families among their students should have to reckon with funding cuts.

Andreas Wegener, principal of the private Kant schools in the bourgeois district of Steglitz-Zehlendorf, has to laugh when asked for his opinion on the latest skirmish over private schools: For more than a decade, he has been painstakingly discussing a change in the financing system with the Senate Department for Education. He thinks a quota is the wrong way to go. Because it would not change the fundamental problem: the structural underfunding of independent schools – which ultimately also raises the "really crucial question of the growing social division in the city," as Wegener says.

At the private Kant School, students pay tuition of 430 to 470 euros per month starting in grade seven.

That’s because politicians don’t dare touch the parental contributions that independent schools use to make up for the shortages caused by the public sector. Currently, the situation in Berlin is as follows: schools receive only 93 percent of the comparable personnel costs of a public school, depending on their number of students. For years, the Berlin Working Group of Independent Schools has been calling for "full-cost financing" that also takes material costs into account.

100-euro rule

Principal Wegener says the public sector should sponsor school places for children from poorer families – as it does, for example, with school lunches. "Cost equalization would be simple, transparent and fair." At the moment, the rule in Berlin is that up to a gross annual income of 30,000 euros a family is allowed a maximum of 100 euros in school fees per month. "But no Hartz IV recipient can pay that," says Wegener. At the Private Kant School, students pay tuition of 430 to 470 euros per month starting in grade seven. Those who earn less also pay less – sometimes parents pay less than 100 euros, says the principal.

The 100-euro rule in Berlin was also criticized as too high in a nationwide study on private school financing conducted by the Science Center Berlin last fall. In addition, the education administration of Senator Sandra Scheeres (SPD) only insufficiently controls whether the schools comply with this regulation – many do not, the scientists criticized. The educational administration communicates on inquiry, one is to this whole topic complex "in the tuning". Soon one wants to present the future financing concept for the free schools.

Of course, parents cannot be blamed for choosing the best school for their child, says Wegener. And that’s precisely why the independent and state schools need to think together, he says: "We need to think much more about cooperation, about school partnerships" – to show each other "that the world is bigger than your own school," Wegener says. "You can be afraid of that, but you don’t have to be." It’s possible that everyone involved could even benefit.