Immigration, Schools, and Elections
In a little less than four weeks Finland will go to the polls to choose a new parliament. Early voting begins in almost two weeks. In the first month of the campaign immigration has become a major issue. The far-right Finns Party opened its campaign by doubling down on its anti-immigration stance by not only reaffirming its long-standing opposition to refugees (that is, unless they are white Ukrainians) but now opposing labor-based migration and even foreign students in Finland. As in previous election campaigns, many think that the Finns Party’s extremism will cost it votes. So far, as in previous elections, this is nothing but wishful thinking. The party remains in three-way fight with the Social Democrats and the center-right National Coalition Party for winning the most seats in Parliament. According to a poll published today a coalition between the Finns Party and the National Coalition party is the most popular choice among voters for Finland's next government.
The Finns Party’s anti-immigrant cause has been helped by the media as well as politicians from the other side of the ideological divide. In the middle of February leaders of the city of Helsinki called for an end to specialty class cohorts in schools such as those that emphasize music, the performing arts, or lesser taught foreign languages. The main rationale for this proposal is that the influx of immigrant children has led to school segregation in which immigrant children are filling up neighborhood schools while schools with specialty class cohorts have few immigrants. There is a growing white flight in which Finns are moving out of and avoiding moving into certain neighborhoods with high immigrant populations. The Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle recently published online a search engine in which one could find out how many pupils in a school speak Finnish as a second language. The search engine had other factors one could search for, such as average income of the school’s area, but it has been understood primarily as a search engine for parents to find how many immigrants are in a school. In the national discussion, immigrants are being made scapegoats for the decline of an education system that gave Finland world renown just a few years ago. Factors such growing income inequality, underfunding of schools, and a school system in which the strong role of teachers has been replaced by consultants have been given much less attention. Helsinki has since decided to table its proposal, probably to be raised again after the elections.
The debate over schools makes a larger point about the two main discourses concerning immigration. Neither advances inclusion of immigrants. The first envisions Finland without foreigners. The second posits that Finland can successfully integrate immigrants without having to change itself. It does not need to address widespread xenophobia. Programs designed to integrate immigrants often fail because they rest on stereotypes and uninformed biases about immigrants. A recently defended doctoral dissertation confirms what many immigrants already know--that many teachers do not support immigrant students' learning of Finnish. When xenophobia and racism are mentioned as problems, such as Prime Minister Marin has recently articulated, they are only problems in the Finns Party, not the general population. In this election, as in previous elections, I am waiting for the first Finnish candidate for parliament to call out racism and xenophobia as a national problem that will not be resolved by itself or by some change in the bureaucracy or law but rather by a political leadership ready to confront a culture of xenophobia.
Finland has a long record of resolving national divisions and bringing disenfranchised groups into the national fold through its education system. The Fennomane movement of the nineteenth century focused on the creation of Finnish-language schools to give Finnish-speaking students a ladder into the country's mostly Swedish-speaking elites. My colleague historian Pauli Kettunen has recently commented on this discussion concerning immigrants in schools by pointing out that the current comprehensive school system created in the 1970s was designed to allow less advantaged children in the countryside and urban working class to move more easily up the social ladder. The comprehensive school system was not introduced in the 1970s without criticism. The opponents argued that a more inclusive school system would level down more students than it would level up—an argument one still hears today and an argument for specialty schools. If schools are to continue to be a mechanism for social mobility, Finland’s schools need to be retooled not by blindly going forward with the newest fad from the education-entertainment complex but rather by reapplying what has worked for the country's schools in the past: empowering teachers, betting on the future of its marginalized groups, and daring to innovate in the face of those who wish to preserve the current system of social advantage. In addition, Finland's educators will have to eradicate from their schools what a former US president called "the soft bigotry of low expectations."