The current 15a agreement, through which the federal government provides the federal states with money for kindergartens, expires at the end of August. The negotiations on the new regulation are already in the home stretch, as the APA has been confirmed by several parties. If there is an agreement, it could be presented on Friday at the state governors’ conference in Vorarlberg. The question remains open as to whether the headscarf ban will continue to be included in the federal-state agreement.
The provincial governors definitely want to negotiate this point out. “You can still stumble at the finish line,” is emphasized in negotiating circles to the APA. However, after the current agreement expires at the end of the summer, there is time pressure to close the sack.
Funding increase announced
The government had announced a substantial increase in funds for the upcoming 15a agreement, through which the federal states would receive money for compulsory kindergarten years, expansion of the range of offers and language support. According to negotiating circles and a draft available to the APA, it has become a “kindergarten billion” for the next five years, i.e. 200 million euros per year (from 2022/23 to 2026/27). Most recently it was 125 million (2018/19) or 142.5 million (2019/20 or 2021/22) for all nine federal states together. The annual funds are thus increased by 75 or 57.5 million euros annually.
The term of the contract will be extended from three to five years. Such a “kindergarten billion” had recently been vehemently demanded by the SPÖ and social partners in view of the shortage of staff in the kindergartens and to improve the quality of the offer – albeit per year.
As part of the new agreement, the federal states should also be able to use the funds made available more flexibly than before, as the APA has been confirmed by several parties. Of the 200 million euros annually, 80 million euros are reserved for compulsory visits (previously 70 million per year). For the other funds, co-financing by the federal and state governments is still required. Around half of this should be set aside for the expansion of the offer (especially for children from birth to three) and around a fifth for early language support. The remaining 30 percent should be able to be used flexibly for these two areas; previously the flexible share was ten percent.
Uniform quality criteria
The federal government has also announced that it will implement more binding, uniform quality criteria (e.g. group size, care key) in the new contract. The Greens in particular are pushing in this direction. However, quality was hardly an issue in the negotiations and the quality criteria were only vaguely formulated, as state representatives complained to the APA. The symbol for this is that the final round of negotiations did not take place with the education or family department, but between the state finance officers and the Ministry of Finance. Really strict quality criteria would of course be rejected by some of the countries anyway because of the extremely different starting positions.
The real sticking point in the negotiations, however, remains the headscarf ban. For elementary schools, the regulation introduced by the ÖVP-FPÖ government has already been repealed by the Constitutional Court (VfGH), which is why the federal states are insisting on a deletion in the kindergarten area as well – especially since no country has so far reported the case of a girl wearing a headscarf in kindergarten became.
When the headscarf ban was introduced in 2019, the federal states had already resisted combining the issues of childcare and the headscarf ban and questioned the constitutional conformity of the regulation. However, the then General Secretary of the People’s Party and today’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) put vehement pressure on the regulation. In the meantime, the states of Salzburg and Tyrol have already removed the regulation from the corresponding state laws.