A few weeks ago, the parents of dozens of Ramat Gan preschoolers were invited to a "marketing evening," sponsored by four area elementary schools. One after the other, the school principals showed professional-looking PowerPoint presentations and handed out flyers sporting slogans such as "Education is our passport to the future" and "Join us in the next big start-up."
"We also held an open house," said Ayala Elbaz, principal of the Hamanhil School, which boasts that it primes children toward initiative, leadership, science and technology. "We showed [parents] the film and robotics room, the first-grade complex, the wired homerooms and the computer room," she says.
Believe it or not, this hard sell by schools has the approval and even the encouragement of the Education Ministry, which is testing a program it calls "controlled parental choice," but which is better known by its unofficial name: opening registration areas.
The idea is simple. Parents will be allowed to register their children at a school of their choice, rather than being forced to send them to the school in their catchment area. The ministry believes this will force state schools to improve and innovate because they will have to compete for students, and will help save public education from the competition posed by the increasing number of private schools.
"This is going to strengthen public education," Education Ministry director general Dalit Shtauber said. "This is the answer to private education.
"Today, the educational system's message is that all schools are the same, and if a parent wants something a little bit different, where can he get it? Only privately," she continued. "This [school choice] is a concept that will enhance the system; give effective, accurate service; and foster healthy competition, not destructive competition, between institutions."
But some educators are less enthusiastic.
"School choice undermines equality; those are the findings all over the world," said Dr. Dan Givton, from the Tel Aviv University School of Education. "But there's no choice, really. The public wants to choose. It's the victory of liberalism."
He has no criticism for the Education Ministry, however. Dr. Givton notes that nationalized, centrally-planned educational systems are not politically feasible today in any democratic country. What's more, such systems have not assured equality, either.
"I'm completely convinced that the ministry believes in equality and wants to strengthen public education," Dr. Givton said. "The model of 'controlled choice' is the least of all evils."
The pilot program is being introduced in four local authorities for the coming school year: Ramat Gan, Mevasseret Zion, Arad and Ussfiya. Ten more locales are starting to prepare for the program's introduction during the following school year.
The Education Ministry has so far allocated NIS 5 million to help schools find their focus and "brand" themselves to parents.
As a result, in the four pilot cities, the annual letter from the municipality informing parents where their child would be studying in September was replaced this year with colorful marketing brochures and local advertising which promised parents that this or that school was the key to their child's future. In Mevasseret Zion, a Jerusalem suburb, teams of parents made home visits to the parents of kindergartners.
As part of the experiment, each local authority was given wide autonomy to handle the process. An educational administration, comprising education department officials, parent representatives, and academic and pedagogic consultants, was set up in each city, and this body determined what would be given priority in accepting pupils - such as date of registration, siblings already in the school, proximity to the pupil's home or socioeconomic status.
This administration also decided whether to allow open registration throughout the city, or whether to divide it and allow mobility only within the defined areas.
Ramat Gan, for example, was divided into clusters. Parents who live in "Cluster A" can choose between Hamanhil school; a school with an environmental orientation; a school that "promotes health"; and a school focused on "learning through play."
"The aim here is to make schools more attractive, challenging to the pupils who attend them, and to know what the residents want and to act accordingly," said Hasi Ran, who is coordinating the pilot for the Education Ministry.
"If there's a school with extremely high demand, we'll open extensions for it. We'll expand the demand and not restrict it. The process will encourage schools to constantly check themselves and improve."
But Prof. Izhar Oplatka, also of the Tel Aviv University School of Education, views the whole idea as only slightly above sleight of hand.
"Opening registration areas is the best tool available for the government to transfer responsibility from itself to the parents," Oplatka warns. "Schools will show parents their marketable sides, what can be easily shown, not what really goes on in the classroom."
He doesn't see the "differentiation" concept working the way its proponents claim.
"Schools will actually become much more alike when there's choice, because they are trying to reach the largest common denominator," he said. "In any case, we're talking about elementary schools, all of which study more or less the same curriculum."
The only differentiation that might matter, he said, is "if the money is used to open smaller classes or add a teaching assistant. Then it's clear that it would be better [for a parent] to put his child there."
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