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"This sort of thing hasn't happened since the days of Ben Gurion," spluttered the manager of an Agudat Yisrael education system, protesting the Education Ministry's attempt to quash discriminatory enrollment policy in ultra-Orthodox schools.

"All the past government's accepted educational autonomy at our institutions," he fulminated. There are painful problems in admission policy, he acknowledged: but people with a beef should talk to the rabbis, not to the Education Ministry.

The ultra-Orthodox take the autonomy of their school system for granted. Indeed, there's no reason for them to take it otherwise.

For years, the State of Israel let them run it as they pleased. It let them decide on the content, and it allowed them to pick and choose students in a manner that reeked of ethnic bias.

The state deliberately refrained from intervening, via the Education Ministry or otherwise, based on a liberal concept of equality: a group may educate its children as it sees best.

The only thing is that equality in education, it turns out, is unilateral. In the name of equality, the ultra-Orthodox schools demand to get their share of the Education Ministry budget, and demand to get chunks of any budgets that local authorities allocate to schools.

But equality evaporates when it's their turn to deliver results in exchange for the money, when it comes time to meet the conditions of the Education Ministry - the most important of which is to comply with the basic curriculum that the ministry set.

The autonomy that the ultra-Orthodox preach is one-sided: the state owes them budgets, but they owe the state nothing. They certainly don't need to subject their curriculum to things that the State wishes be taught, such as good citizenship in a democracy, and skills that the pupils can use to find work in adulthood.

It is the Education Ministry's job to point out their mistake, and the Education Ministry is doing everything in its power not to do that.

Suing to enforce a nonexistent program

Two weeks ago the Jewish Reform organization sued at the High Court of Justice, following a motion that the Teachers Organization filed with the court in 2003. The organization demanded to know why the ultra-Orthodox schools were receiving state budgets without having to comply with the ministry's mandatory study program.

The ministry admitted that the law does require schools financed by the state to comply with the ministry's mandatory "core" study program. It should, it admitted, demand the same from the ultra-Orthodox schools, and should withhold money from schools that refuse to comply.

However, the ministry said, it had no such "core" study program in place and asked for three years to prepare one and bring it to schools. The three years end now.

As the petition by the Reform movement revealed, the Education Ministry in practice did nothing to subject the ultra-Orthodox network to its mandatory "core" study program for high schools - not that it has one. Yes: it has no mandatory program that it could theoretically force the schools to comply with.

The situation regarding primary schools is a little better, in that there is a "core" study program. It just isn't enforced.

In essence, the teachers and reform movement are, in practice, suing to force the education ministry to move once and for all, prepare a core study program for high schools, and then to force the ultra-Orthodox schools to comply with it.

Are they complying? Who knows?

According to figures that the Education Ministry delivered to the plaintiffs, it has 120 inspectors supervising 643,000 children enrolled in the secular state schools. That is one for each 5,300 pupils.

The religious state schools sector gets one inspector per 4,000 children.

The Arab sector has only one inspector per 7,000 to 14,000 pupils but the situation in the ultra-Orthodox schools sector beats all: one inspector per 102,000 children.

They are, in practice, not supervised.

That includes the 40,000 children under no supervision whatsoever, though the 190 schools at which they study get 55% of their funding from the state.

In answer to the suits, the Education Ministry admitted that no resources had been allocated to integrating the core study program at ultra-Orthodox primary schools. Nor had resources had been allocated to preparing a core program for high schools. Nor are there any directives to inspectors regarding the frequency of their visits to schools, nor is there any follow-up. Yet the ministry has never denied funding to any ultra-Orthodox school.

Yet one inspection report on the ultra-Orthodox-sector schools found that 51 of them, belonging to the big haredi movements, did not meet the core study criteria set for them.

The Education Ministry's own admission shows that any requirement for the ultra-Orthodox schools to meet study criteria, are lip service. The casualties of this laxness are the children themselves, who cannot acquire the knowledge and skills to fit into society, who cannot take advantage of equal opportunity education.

Other casualties are us all, the citizens of Israel whose taxes finance an education system that does not teach democracy, and that is training the next generation of poor. Like the whales that beach themselves and die, the State is Israel is destroying its own economic and democratic future, with its eyes wide open.