Vilnius, Lithuania–Edita Bagdoniene furrows her brow as her 3-year-old son, Mykolas, splashes mischievously in puddles outside. Mykolas is absorbed in his game, but his mother is distracted with worry.
She wants to enroll him in preschool, where his games would have more structure, and he would learn to play with other children. But by her calculations, Mykolas would not get to see the inside of a preschool before his 10th birthday, barring payment of a hefty bribe.
And that is simply out of the family’s reach.
Preschools and kindergartens in Vilnius have long waiting lists for enrollment, and the only way for parents to secure a place for their children is through a cash-stuffed envelope.
“My brother’s friend’s family brought an envelope with nearly $200 inside to pay a preschool director to enroll their child,” said Bagdoniene. “Luckily, the director accepted the money even though the envelope usually has to be thicker.” She adds that a typical blatas, a Soviet-era word that has come to mean “bribe,” is usually about $400.
Since 2006, the European Commission has marked early childhood education as a top priority, and aims to give preschool access to 95% of children over 4 years old by 2020. But standing in the way in Lithuania and a number of other countries is an informal system of bribery to secure the coveted preschool slots. Among Lithuania’s four largest cities, fewer than 10 percent of children under three attend preschool, according to the report of the Vilnius-based European Institute for Gender Equality. Those numbers place the country among the European Union’s nine worst for preschool attendance.
The benefits of early childhood education are hardly in dispute. A longterm study of 20,000 pre-school children in France in the 1990s indicated that the longer children attended preschool, the greater their chance of success in later grades. Only 10% of preschoolers who attended for three years later repeated a grade. More than 30% of those who did not attend were held back.
Some 2,500 children are on waiting lists for just 490 slots available at public preschools in Lituania’s capital, and families with more than three children or single-parent households are favored in the enrollment system.
Some 450 children in the city attend private preschools, but tuition bills of up to $365 per month put that option out of reach for most families. The Bagdonai family’s monthly income consists of Bagdoniene’s $250 in maternity benefits and her husband’s $600 salary as a translator.
“Most families bribe local preschool heads to have their children admitted,” said Arunas Bagdonai, 42, her husband.
The Bagdonai family had considered forking over a bribe, but instead pinned their hopes on a new electronic preschool admission system introduced this fall, in an effort to clamp down on the practice. However, rather than rooting out the demand for bribes, the electronic system appears to have added new layers of confusion.
By Bagdoniene’s count, Mykolas will have to wait seven or more years for a chance to attend preschool.
“Here is my calculation,” she said. “I put him on the enrollment list in the Seskine preschool when he was just born in the beginning of 2010. He was 128th on the list. That has inched up only 30 places over nearly three years. So at this pace, my son would be called to preschool when he reaches ten.” Bagdoniene said. “That is insane.”
Gintare Lavinaite, 24, the mother of a year-and-a-half-old son, is also frustrated by the lack of progress and the shortcomings of the city’s electronic enrollment system.
“I hurried to the municipality to sign up my child, but I was told the e-list would be reset on January 1st, 2013, and only sign-ups after that date would count,” Lavinaite said.
When the Bagdonai family tried to sign up their children online, they found mistakes.
The website told them there were vacancies in the preschool, so they tried to enroll Mykolas and his six-month-old brother, Gabrielus. The municipality never contacted them. Frustrated, the parents called the city administration, only to learn that the website had scuttled their application due to a shortage of available spots, Bagdoniene said.
“A lot of mothers complain that the public e-enrollment system is flawed — you see one set of numbers on it, but then hear quite another when you call the preschools.”
When she contacted the schools about vacancies she saw listed on the Web site, administrators called her “naÃ¯ve” for trusting the online information.
“The new system is not working. I am pretty sure bribes will find their way to the municipality’s IT specialists in charge of enrollment. Maybe the blatas will just become much bigger to pay for the system to be hacked,” she said.
But the director of the Education, Culture and Sports Department for the city, Gintaras Petronis, dismissed the criticism of electronic enrollment, saying he is confident the system will make school registration more flexible and organized.
“The e-system will sort through the existing waiting lists, discarding redundant registrations,” he said. “It has already found 600 duplicates. Besides, repealing some priority-enrollment benefits for socially-supported families will also help,” he said.
Fuelling frustrations, parents say preschool enrollment in Vilnius was a cinch just four or five years ago.
“There were plenty of vacancies for kids in the establishments. No parent had to think of a waiting list. The Conservatives are the ones to blame for this,” said Viktoras Malinauskas, a 34-year-old father of two.
When the ruling Conservative party, the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (HU-LCD), came to power in 2008, they boosted maternity benefits as part of an effort to counter flagging birth rates due to massive emigration. Nearly half a million Lithuanians left the country from 2008 to 2011, according the EU statistics agency Eurostat. The party’s family-friendly platform won them votes, but schools were ill-prepared to handle the ensuing baby boom when the toddlers reached school age.
The policy has come under fire, with dozens of women accused of misusing the maternity leave benefits. Some mothers were charged with colluding with their employers to report inflated salaries to the govenrnment in order to gain bigger benefit payouts. The program was overhauled and trimmed due to concerns about fraud and its strain on the budget.
Meanwhile, corruption has emerged in answer to the competition for scarce services.
Rasa Grigaliuniene, deputy director of the Vilnius’ Zirmuneliai preschool, says many parents have offered bribes to help their kids get in the classroom.
“I recall when someone flung an envelope toward me and starting running toward the door. I had to chase the bribe-giver all the way to the parking lot and tuck the envelope forcibly into his pocket. Some crazed person even threatened to blow us up if we did not find a place for his child right away. We did not relent,” Grigaliuniene said.
Tatjana Gilevic, head of the Daigelis preschool in Vilnius, said the new system was plagued with errors.
The system did succeed in eliminating duplications, she said, but discrepancies between admission lists of the schools and municipal authorities persist. Gilevic does not alert the municipality when she comes across such errors. Swamped with work as they are, she doubts they would trouble over such details.
“Every system, even the most sophisticated electronic ones, can be cheated or hacked,” said Gilevic. “But only the future will show whether corruption can be rooted out.”
Aleksas Bruzas, chairman of Lithuania’s Education Employee Trade Union regards the new approach with caution.
“Corruption has been flourishing there, so it’s too early and too optimistic to expect that it will be rooted out any time soon,” Bruzas said. “Even with the e-thing. I reckon it’s only a matter of time before we all start hearing about attempts to hack the system.
Nevertheless, he says, it would be harder to track down and bribe the computer specialists in charge of enrollment than to pay a preschool administrator for the favor.
Meanwhile, the Bagdonai family is trying to remain upbeat despite the setbacks. “I will wait for the New Year and see what happpens then. But my gut feeling is the preschool corruption will not give up easy,” Bagdoniene said.
Time may eventually ease the burden on prechools. With the maternity benefits slashed significantly, national unemployment at 14 percent, and a large scale emigration underway, the short baby boom is set to recede — and with it the competition for preschool slots.
Linas Jegelevicius is the editor of the Palangos Tiltas, a newspaper in Western Lithuania resort town of Palanga, and a correspondent for the English-language Baltic Times.