Bonn's Great Debate Is A Victory for Parents

Opposition to school closing makes waves

This is the story of a referendum that was never held, but which spoke volumes about parental confidence in Germany's public schools.

The posters were all over town, urging votes against (or, in notably fewer cases, for) a third comprehensive school for Bonn in a referendum to have been held Feb. 23. But there was no referendum, and it had been clear for weeks that there wouldn't be one.

The vote would have given an outraged public the last word after an unpopular decision last September by the City Council: A highly regarded academically oriented high school (a Gymnasium) was to be closed to make room for the third comprehensive school (one in which children of mixed abilities study side by side).

But when the school-preference forms were tallied at the end of January, there was clearly not enough parental demand for the new school.

The issue being moot, the referendum was canceled. And yet the posters - both Ja! and Nein! - lingered on with an obstinacy unusual for campaign advertising, which usually melts away after election day like a spring snowfall. What's going on here?

"The politicians underestimated how sensitive an issue it was. We didn't like having a school taken away from us right under our noses," says Werner Ressing, an organizer of the opposition to the proposed school.

Choosing schools

Germany's traditional school system groups children by academic ability, starting with the fifth year. But the idea of setting a child's education plan in concrete by his 10th birthday has, for many people over the years, epitomized everything wrong in German education. And so during the reform-minded 1960s and '70s, the comprehensive school came into vogue. (The typical American public high school is, essentially, a comprehensive school, serving all types of students, albeit with more ability-grouping in individual classes.)

Such a school is supposed to offer late bloomers, in particular, options they would not find elsewhere. "But the performance level just isn't as high," as at a Gymnasium, says Mr. Ressing. At a time of economic uncertainty, parents can't take risks with their children's futures.

Moreover, advocates of the traditional system argue that it has been reformed. Late bloomers can transfer "up." Comprehensive schools solve a problem that no longer exists, in this view.

Still - they have one great advantage: They are all-day schools, with cafeterias, a critical support system for working parents, especially single mothers.

Walter Bitterberg, the Social Democrats' leader in the city council, counters, "It's not a question of which type of school. It's a question of how good the people at the individual schools are." He teaches in a Gymnasium in nearby Cologne, and his own children attend a comprehensive school in Bonn.

Municipal finances are too tight for the city to build new schools, says Dr. Bitterberg. But parental preferences over the past two years showed growing demand for a third comprehensive school - hence the decision to open a new one and close a Gymnasium.

International implications?

But a new state law allows citizens to petition for reversal of certain types of local government decisions. And those opposed to the new school ended up with 40,000 signatures, almost twice as many as needed to force the city council to reverse its decision or put the matter to a referendum.

Meanwhile, a number of prominent political figures chimed in. Hardtberg, the Gymnasium that would have been closed, offers preparation not only for the German Abitur (the university entrance exam), but for its French equivalent, the baccalaurat. Closing the school would have damaged the Franco-German relationship, one heard.

Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel and Defense Minister Volker Rhe voiced support for the Gymnasium. This led members of the city council to joke that they were putting German membership in NATO at risk.

And there are still quite a few referendum posters all over town.

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