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Turkey: Controversial Education Reform Legislation Passed

(Apr. 17, 2012) The Grand National Assembly (GNA, Turkey's parliament) passed an education reform bill on March 30, 2012, extending the length of compulsory education from eight years to twelve. Primary education covers children from six to fourteen years of age (in two tiers); four-year secondary education will now also be mandatory. (Education Reform Bill Passes in Turkish Parliament, HÜRRIYET DAILY NEWS (Mar. 30, 2012); Ilkögretim ve Egitim Kanunu Ile Bazi Kanunlarda Degisiklik Yapilmasina Dair Kanun [Law on Amendment of Elementary Education and Training Law and Along with Some Other Laws], Law No. 6287(Mar. 30, 2012), Grand National Assembly of Turkey website.)

The reform legislation also makes it possible for middle school students to attend Islamic schools by reversing a measure, imposed by the military in 1997, that had closed religious schools to middle school students; only high school students were then permitted to attend those institutions. Thus, “schools specializing in religious education combined with a modern curriculum, known as imam hatip schools [will be allowed] to take boys and girls from the age of 11 instead of 15, and to provide optional classes in Quranic studies and the life of the Prophet Mohammed in other schools.” (Simon Cameron-Moore, Turkey Passes School Reform Law Viewed by Critics as Islamic, Al ARABIYA (Mar. 30, 2012).)

The reforms also allow students to attend vocational schools as early as ten years of age, a move viewed by opponents as depriving the youngsters “of the broad-based education they need.” (Turkey Passes Hotly Contested School Reform Bill, FOX NEWS(Mar. 30, 2012).)

The legislation generated heated debate among legislators, with deputies from the main opposition Republican People's Party protesting the bill before the vote, then leaving the GNA chamber. (Id.) In two days of public protests against the reform measures, police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd as the protesters sought to march on the GNA. Opponents reportedly fear that the reforms will promote an Islamic agenda and heighten the influence of Islamic schools, which would be at odds philosophically with Turkey's secular Constitution, and that they will also lower education standards. (Turkey Police Break Up Education Bill Protest, AL JAZEERA (Mar. 29, 2012); Cameron-Moore, supra.)

As one reporter pointed out, since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the Turkish republic in 1923, “[e]ducation has been one of the main battlegrounds between religious conservatives – who form the bedrock of AKP [the ruling party led by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan] support – and secularists … .” Moreover, he noted, because Ataturk believed that religion was holding Turkey back, “one of Ataturk's first acts was to close madrasas, religious schools. Admirers of Ataturk say the AK Party is rolling back policies hurtful to pious Muslims.” (Id.) On the other hand, in the view of some teachers, “regardless of the debate over the place of religion in the classroom, education desperately needs massive investment in more classrooms and more teachers, as half the country's 74 million people are under the age of 28.” (Id.)