Could Germany's digital education initiative threaten states' rights?

Schools are set to move into the digital era, after Germany's upper house voted to change the constitution. Critics say federal support for schools will erode states' rights, but a majority of Germans support the move.

A hurricane is supposed to appear on a board in front of geography teacher Christina Müller's ninth-grade students. She chooses a video from the International Space Station for her smartboard, the digital blackboard in the front of the classroom.

Today's topic? The phenomena of nature. But there is a delay. "It is because of the Wi-Fi," says Müller, who uses the time to quiz her students on cloud formations. When the video finally starts, she seamlessly directs their attention to the hurricane.

The Siegburg Gymnasium Alleestrasse, located in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, is a model school. Awards on the walls of the staircase take up so much room there is hardly space left. Most recently, the high school was honored as an accomplished school in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

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But it still lacks a strong internet connection. Even in 2019, in a country as prosperous as Germany, a school like the Siegburg Gymnasium Alleestrasse does not have a Wi-Fi signal strong enough to cover the entire school, which is housed in a heritage listed building from the 1960s. "Unfortunately, we are not yet properly equipped, which, of course, leads to frustration," says Principal Sabine Trautwein.

Slow internet can delay class at the Gymnasium Alleestrasse Siegburg

Digital Pact on the horizon

Some critics say federalism is to blame. According to Germany's constitution, known as the Basic Law, education is a matter for state governments. In this sense, the federal government cannot simply donate technology to education institutions when it has money left over. For constitutional lawyers, this goes against what is known as the "cooperation ban."

"Instead, we should be moving toward a cooperation requirement," Yvonne Gebauer, North Rhine-Westphalia's education minister, told DW. "Of course we want to preserve the cultural sovereignty of the states, but education is a federal responsibility, and that is why we need the money from the federal government."

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On March 15, the Bundesrat — the upper house of Germany's parliament, which represents the country's 16 federal states — voted in favor of changing the Basic Law to pave the way for the so-called Digital Pact. Under the plan, the federal government will provide schools with €5 billion ($5.65 billion) over five years to improve digital infrastructure.

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The Siegburg school is sure to receive funding for faster internet, more smartboards, laptops and perhaps even personnel to maintain the technology.

"It must not only be about the equipment," says Trautwein. "It must bring additional benefits for the students. And that's why funds from the Digital Pact require every school to have a media concept."

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Trautwein and her colleagues are currently working on a concept so that federal funds can flow as quickly as possible. Some €500 are to be allocated for every pupil.

However, for constitutional lawyer Hans-Jürgen Papier, who served as president of the Federal Constitutional Court from 2002 to 2010, the amendment to the constitution represents "a further step toward a creeping erosion of the state governance."

"Federalism is one of the so-called eternal constitutional principles of Germany," he told DW.

From states to administrative districts?

The Basic Law irrevocably states that Germany is a federal republic, not a centrally controlled republic. Education policy is regarded as the core of state sovereignty.

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Papier says he fears that "step by step, Germany will transform into a unitary state" where the individual states will then "casually become administrative districts."

That sort of development would be a break from federal tradition in Germany. Before German unification in 1871, the country consisted of numerous small states. After unification, those states remained independent when it came to matters of cultural and educational policy until 1933, when the Nazis forcibly centralized the government.

After the war, the Western allies gave the authors of the German constitution a clear mandate to create a "federalist type" state.

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Closely intertwined

Since the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany 70 years ago, self-confident states that did not want to be prescribed by the federal government met in the Bundesrat council. But the constitution has been repeatedly reformed since then.

The federal and state governments have interwoven their responsibilities like a complex hair braid. They view themselves as dependent on each other and often make decisions together. With the Digital Pact, another node is now tied.

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According to Papier, this means the responsibility for political grievances is no longer clearly discernible. "The states can now say that any poorly guided developments in the education sector are due to the fact that they had received too little money from the federal government," he says.

Conversely, he says, the federal government could then claim that the states had not spent the money properly: "Anyone can basically shift responsibility to the other level. And citizens will no longer be able to truly use their vote to bring about real penalties."

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Next round of negotiations awaits

If North Rhine-Westphalia Education Minister Yvonne Gebauer gets her way, it may end up setting a precedent that other sectors should follow. "The field of digitization moves rapidly," she says. "Today's devices might be ready for the museum shelves the day the after tomorrow."

"The €1 billion for North Rhine-Westphalia is just initial funding, but of course we have to think about permanent financing from the federal government and enter into negotiations," she adds. And Gebauer can count on the fact that she has the majority of Germans on side.

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Polls say more than 50 percent of Germans are in favor of giving the federal government full jurisdiction over education and schools, Basic Law or not.

For the pupils and teachers at the school in Siegburg, these issues have been part of a long journey that is far from over. It is about being able to design course material that keeps up with the rapid digital pace that people have long been living through every day.

Until that happens, Christina Müller will continue to rely on the smartphones all her ninth-graders carry with them. In her next lesson, she wants to continue with the topic of natural disasters. For this, the pupils download a geography app onto their phones. Thanks to mobile networks, they aren't always beholden to the school's sluggish internet.

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