Education Minister Armen Ashotian insisted on Tuesday that he does not lack trust in Armenia’s public education system managed by him despite sending his children to an expensive private school.
Ashotian was visibly annoyed by journalists’ questions regarding the school choice as he visited a public school in Yerevan on the first day of the new academic year officially marked in the country as Knowledge Day.
His two young sons, meanwhile, had the first day of school at Ayb, one of the country’s most expensive and prestigious private centers for primary and secondary education. The school charges its primary-level students 2.5 million drams ($5,200) per annum, suggesting that Ashotian and his wife pay 5 million drams in tuition fees. The figure equals Ashotian’s entire annual salary.
The cost of the boys’ education, very high by Armenian standards, has raised questions about the credibility of the minister’s official income declarations. His decision to enroll them at Ayb has also lent credence to a widely held belief that education standards in Armenia have been declining despite various reforms announced by the government in recent years. Some critics of the government have portrayed it as an effective acknowledgement of the government’s failure to reverse that decline.
“Please do not intrude in my private life with video cameras and voice recorders,” Ashotian told journalists before reluctantly answering their questions about the controversy. “Like every Armenian parent, I don’t economize on the health and education of my children,” he said.
Ashotian, in office since 2009, insisted that his preference for Ayb does not mean that he rates poorly Armenia’s public schools subordinate to his ministry. “I trust them a lot,” he said. “You know how many bright kids we have in public schools.”
“If children of opposition party leaders can go to private schools, then I can also [do the same,]” he added when pressed on sources of funding for his children’s expensive education. He urged the media “look at my income declaration and calculate.”
The declaration posted on the website of the Commission on the Ethics of High-Ranking Officials, a state body, lists a 5 million-dram annual salary and a loan worth 10 million drams ($21,000) as the 40-year-old minister’s sole income in 2014. It says nothing about the source of that loan. Contrary to a legal requirement for senior Armenian officials, Ashotian has not disclosed his wife’s incomes and assets.
Ashotian faced conflict of interest claims last year after Ayb received an Armenian government grant worth almost 214 million drams. The allocation was officially recommended by the Ministry of Education.
As well as running the ministry, Ashotian is a deputy chairman of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) known for his derogatory verbal attacks on President Serzh Sarkisian’s political foes. He headed the HHK’s youth wing before being first elected to the Armenian parliament in 2005. Not surprisingly, he is disliked by many opposition supporters and other disgruntled Armenians.
Ashotian was greeted with offensive chants by hundreds of youth activists protesting against an electricity price hike in Yerevan when he visited them together with other politicians and public figures in June. The hostile reception forced him to leave the protest scene shortly afterwards.