Children, kindergarten, playground
Private kindergarten. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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Knesset member Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi ) is sponsoring a bill to regulate the licensing and supervision of day care centers.

That might sound surprising since child care facilities in Israel have been required to be licensed and supervised since 1965. The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry even has a unit entrusted with the job.

However, the ministry only provides oversight of day care centers sponsored by the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO ), Na'amat and Emunah, because they get government subsidies. This accounts for 1,600 day care facilities and 2,300 smaller child care centers (mishpahtonim in Hebrew ) caring for about 86,000 pre-school children up to age 3.

Although these youngsters have the benefit for child care under government supervision, and in many cases government subsidies, too, all told, there are 435,000 Israeli children up to age 3. So what about the care provided to the almost 350,000 others? No one really has any idea because even those children attending other day care programs, including private day care, don't benefit from government oversight.

Those with an interest in the subject are welcome to read a Knesset Research and Information Center report from March of this year in which four pages are devoted to an effort to figure out how many private child care facilities exist in this country and how many children actually attend them. The answer, according to the report, is somewhere between 42,000, which is what the Central Bureau of Statistics thinks, and 300,000, as claimed by the organization representing private day care centers.

The absence of a consensus merits a look at the compromise figure that the ministry is touting: about 100,000 children in day care settings that are not government supervised, from which it might be concluded that the government really doesn't know how many private child care facilities there are in Israel and how many children attend them. And any oversight these facilities get is nothing to write home about.

It would be more accurate to say that the vast majority of those 100,000 children or thereabouts attending private day care facilities get almost no outside oversight. The small number of centers that the state has information about are the result of a survey the ministry carried out in 2004, in which participation was voluntary.

The respondents to the survey provided the ministry data on the number of children per child care center, the location of each center, the number and education level of staff and the extent of oversight at the center. The survey results indicated that 51% of the private pre-schools have some form of outside supervision, generally of safety standards and the physical state of the facility, particularly from fire safety authorities and the Health Ministry, which checks sanitary conditions.

Whose job is it? Tough one, that

Beyond that, oversight is relatively rare, meaning that the level of supervision the state exercises over the most vulnerable segment of the education system, the pre-school system, is negligible. Furthermore, in addition to the absence of oversight, there is no agreement on who has oversight authority.

In practice, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry only supervises the pre-schools sponsored by the organizations that get government subsidies. The ministry got these powers in the 1960s when day care facilities were regarded as primarily addressing the needs of working mothers. Since then, however, the approach to a lot of things has changed, including the evolution of a newer view that regards day care centers are an integral part of the education system. This means pre-schools are not just babysitting services designed to enable women to enter the labor market, but places where children can be educated and enriched.

And although over the years, the state also committed to provide free compulsory education from age 3, more than a few of the children in private day care are between the ages of 3 and 4. This means that it would have been logical to make the Education Ministry the government agency responsible for private day care supervision. In practice, however, the Education Ministry has rid itself of responsibility, leaving the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry as the only state agency in the picture.

Orlev's bill, which was consolidated with an industry ministry bill on the subject, is an effort to put an end to this disorder and lack of supervision by setting binding supervisory standards for all day care centers, including private ones and those that get government support. Supervision would be expanded to include all aspects of the physical facilities as well as educational considerations such as educational content and the training that staff has received.

No doubt Israel urgently needs to be supervising day care centers, but it's not at all certain the state is capable of doing that, for two reasons. First, as usual, is the issue of funding. Secondly, and this is not usual, is that it's not clear the state can find the private child care centers, since most of them operate beyond public view.