Arguably the best minister in the outgoing cabinet and probably the best minister of education Moldova has ever had, Maia Sandu, for the last two and a half years, has been relentlessly pushing for the long overdue reform of the education system. An economist by training, she employs a systemic and rational approach in trying to raise the quality of education in a cost-effective way. This is where the much criticized optimization process (shut down of small schools) came into play. Yet, even the opposition realized, but failed to acknowledge, that quality education was impossible to achieve in settings where, due to budget constraints, the same teacher offers math, history and physical education classes. Apart from the recently adopted new Education Code, Maia Sandu’s signature policy has been the enforcement of strict anti-cheating rules during high school graduation exams, which made her public enemy number one among teenagers and in many cases, sadly, their parents. Cheating and corruption that covers for it have become so entrenched in Moldovan education system that any attempt to curb this shameful practice is met with formidable and, at times comical, resistance. Students and many of their parents see cheating as an accepted way of beating the system, which, for many reasons, they feel alienated from. Luckily, Maia Sandu and her team view things differently.
Following her appointment in July 2012, Minister Sandu proceeded to clean up the house by dismissing officials known to be corrupt and/or otherwise unfit for the job. However, much to the minister and public’s bewilderment, several of those disgruntled employees sued the ministry and were reinstated by Moldovan courts, which are indeed ‘the most humane in the world,’ to paraphrase a classic Soviet comedy. Unfortunately, this is no laughing matter. Sandu’s team has lost precious time and energy fighting the windmills of Moldova justice. It has become absurd when judges effectively banned the ministry from carrying out internal investigations against its employees, while also intruding into a domain as foreign to the purpose of the judiciary as it can be, specifically assigning the highest grade for a graduation exam. In another case, the same judge reinstates a high school director dismissed into retirement as the Moldovan Labor Code mandates. Curiously, the judge agreed with the plaintiff and cited the principle of non-retroactivity of laws. Namely, back in 1986 when the director was hired the law did not set a retirement age of 65 years old. It does not take a doctorate in law to realize how bogus such an interpretation is.
Perhaps, out of sheer desperation, on December 23 the minister issued a public letter to the Supreme Council of Magistrates (self regulating body of the justice system), citing all of the above-mentioned wrongdoings by several judges who, according the minister, appear to have a beef with the institution of with her personally. The Council invited Sandu for a hearing, but, after a shouting match and mutual accusations, decided to postpone the matter for a later date. It becomes evident that Sandu’s western managerial style is being rejected by the judicial body and parts of the political class as something foreign. As a negative externality, this inevitably reduces the chances of other western bred talent stepping into Moldovan public service.
By late December, Sandu had already been elected to Parliament, being number five on the PLDM ticket. So, her ‘name and shame’ letter was either a ‘kind’ farewell to the judges that made her life pointlessly difficult or yet another PLDM jab against their coalition partners – the democrats, who are believed to have a strong say in Moldovan justice system, namely through Vlad Plahotiuc. Neither the score setting not the Machiavellian explanations seem plausible. Personally, I see it as an attempt to set the record straight before she accepts another term as minister, which she publicly said she was looking forward to.
Now, her willingness to carry on with the reforms and stay in office for another term is impressive to say the least. A simple glance at her CV and income statement would tell you that she can easily go back to the World Bank or venture into the cash bonanza of global consulting companies like McKinsey, BCG, and Accenture or pursue any other highly rewarding career. Instead, she chooses to remain in the snake pit that is Moldovan politics and try to pull local education system from the deep dark hole of corruption, mismanagement and neglect. Regardless of one’s views about her political affiliation, not appreciating that kind of personal sacrifice is short-sighted and ignorant.