“The Derung case”
The village of St. Martin used to have 60 inhabitants, most of whom spoke German, while a 20% minority spoke Romansh. There was a teacher in the German school whose mother tongue was Romansh. Two neighboring villages had Romansh schools. The Derungs, a Romansh family, lived on a traditional Romansh farm. They sent their children to a Romansh school in the next village and then attempted to get the tuition and other expenses reimbursed under Federal Education provision, but failed.
The Cantonal Court concluded that a small village such as St Martin with a German majority is not obliged to provide both German and Romansh classes. In the Cantonal Court’s opinion, the expense incurred by attending a Romansh school in the next village is not a violation of the language freedom:
“The children had an opportunity to attend the school in St. Martin free of charge, while the teacher whose mother tongue was Romansh would teach in both languages, Romansh and German, until children were capable of understanding. Thus, their mother tongue was sufficiently represented. Language minority rights have not been violated and, therefore, there are no justifiable grounds for claiming tuition and other expenses to be reimbursed where the parents decided their children should attend a school in a neighboring village”.
In accordance with federal education law, children may be entitled to attend a state school in a neighboring village, should it be easier to travel there than to the village to which they belong administratively. The village where the child lives usually covers the costs. However, where a child attends a school in the next village for other (perhaps personal) reasons, the family must cover the cost.
The canton authority rejected the Derungs’ claim in this case because their children had no serious language reasons for not attending the German-language school. The Federal Court has not set a precedent for whether a minority mother tongue (i.e., if a teacher’s mother tongue is a minority language) is a personal or justifiable reason. It accepted the Cantonal Court’s explanation as “justified”.
The Federal Court is however on record that the preservation of Romansh is in the interest of Switzerland:
“We should not be neglecting certain facts. Romansh children have to learn German anyway, from a practical point of view, so it is acceptable that they have classes in German from their early school days… In Romansh villages, most pupils study in German. It is not justifiable to claim that this approach, adopted for practical reasons, threatens language freedom (Sprachenfreiheit)”.
Thus, the father of a Romansh family has to cope with the fact that in a mostly German village his children will attend a German school.
In their appeal, the Derungs claimed that the Canton of Graubünden violated their right to free elementary education. They did not succeed. The Federal Council, stressing its limited jurisdiction, averred:
“The territorial principle is in this case a hurdle in obtaining elementary education and puts the local school language in the role of an assimilating and integrating factor. Accepting the claim as justified would be in contradiction with the territorial principle, and the result would be that the option could be chosen “by everyone”. Education in a language other than the mother tongue does not mean it is insufficient if, otherwise, it meets all demands.”