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Like every excessively caring and vigilant mother of a child in kindergarten, I started months in advance of the academic year to visit different schools in my city, to figure out where to register my son. This educational "shopping" made me dizzy the way large department stores sometimes do.

For instance, if in the beginning the idea of religious and secular children learning together captivated me, a week later, at the democratic school, I was equally enchanted by the youngsters' parliament. At an anthroposophist school they said the child would learn to knit and play the flute, and the kids there seemed very serene. Yet a week later I was convinced, at yet another school, that children need to realize their creativity and express their free spiritedness in other ways. Thus weeks of troubled sleep and an upset tummy passed.

When I ultimately found myself accompanying my son to a rather dreary, but familiar school, where "Welcome to first grade!" was printed in large letters on the classroom board, I wondered whether I wasn't simply a defeatist. Three years down the road, however, I am satisfied with my decision, with the likable teachers, and with the warm and accepting atmosphere at our small neighborhood school. And I am equally pleased I'm not wasting time on transportation.

If at one time schools established by groups of parents were a rather hallucinatory and anarchic sight - since, for the most part, chaos seemed to reign in these places and it wasn't clear what was learned there, if anything - in recent years, an elitist trend is developing as many such institutions are being established in the heart of major cities and in the suburbs. These specialized schools have become the refuge of children of the Israeli bourgeoisie from the deteriorating state education system, and a way to create a barrier between them and so-called undesirable populations.

Nonetheless, and despite the fact that enrollment in them entails a financial burden, even parents who once stood their ground are tempted by these schools. This is especially so in light of an education system where class size continues to rise and where there is burgeoning violence in the school yard and many burned-out teachers.

According to Education Ministry figures, there are currently 80 private or specialized schools in the country, in which about 20,000 children are enrolled. Most of them were established by parents or nonprofit organizations during the past 15 years; a minority of them are veteran institutions, such as the arts and nature schools in Tel Aviv or the Experimental School in Jerusalem.

Though the numbers seem marginal, in places where these schools are concentrated - mostly in well-off areas of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem - they have created a feeling that there has been mass abandonment of the public education system. Parents who cannot afford to enroll their children in one of these schools because of their high cost (NIS 1,000 to NIS 2,000 or more per month), or those who are opposed to them on principle, look on wistfully as the "stronger pupils" leave.

The sense of impotence is described by Hadas Sternberg, a resident of Tel Aviv. "On the one hand I understand the parents who are abandoning the regular education system, which has a lot of problems," she says, "but on the other hand - I'm angry at them."

According to Sternberg, whose three children attended the Balfour School, the neighborhood school of the Lev Ha'ir area, "If the good population were to stay, it would be possible to make changes in the school. But the majority chooses to leave. This weakens the school. When you choose a place to live, you think about all the aspects of life there. You can't choose to live in Tel Aviv without believing in the city's education system."

Sternberg herself chose the neighborhood school consciously, not by default: "I could have afforded to enroll them in private schools, but I didn't do so out of principle. We thought primarily about the social and not just the academic aspect of this: We didn't want our children to be cut off from the kids in the neighborhood, or have them take public transportation to the homes of friends who live far away and then come back at night. We wanted them to grow up the way we did."

Sternberg's position is admirable precisely because of the image the Balfour School has as being in the "backyard" of the elitist schools in Tel Aviv. The feeling of parents in the area is that whoever can, runs for his life.

"It's a phenomenon. Children enroll in the school temporarily, because they weren't accepted to the specialized schools, but at the first opportunity, they disappear," relates Rachel Brawer, whose daughter also attends Balfour. "There are children who don't 'invest' socially as a result. Why make friends with children if you are going to leave anyway?"

Brawer believes that a school should reflect ordinary, heterogeneous society. "The private schools don't represent the Israeli population, but rather the stronger children - the 'sons of.' Somehow at the specialized schools they manage to work things in a way that ensures they get the children they want. We live in the city because supposedly the whole population is represented here, including single mothers, and gay and lesbian couples. This is a place that's open to everyone. When you send your child to a selective school, there's a contradiction. When parents educate their children to democracy and egalitarianism, but in the end send them to elitist schools - to my mind, that's hypocrisy."

"One can't complain to parents or private groups when they want to open their own school," admits Ruth Ottolenghi, a veteran educator and principal, who in the 1990s headed the Education Ministry's secondary-school division. "Indeed, the average parent says: 'Principles have their place, but I still want to look out for my child."

'A bubble of nature'

Sharon Abramson of Jerusalem, an architect who believes in being part of her community and her society, sent her children to neighborhood schools. "We're always putting our children in the center and, in fact, make them a bit narcissistic with our choice of a special school for them. I want to believe in state education. I want my children to feel they are part of society."

Parents like Abramson often compensate their children themselves for what they see is lacking at the regular nearby school; she is aware of the shortcomings there: "It sometimes breaks my heart to see what enriching and mind-broadening programs are offered to children at specialized schools," she notes, but adds that at the same time, she rejects the prevailing opinion that the ordinary education system is rotten through and through. "I won't say it's catastrophic. The schools are good, all in all, and reasonable. And even in the ordinary state education system, it's possible to encounter extraordinary teachers."

To the "defense brief" favoring the ordinary education system can be added the feeling that the private school trend may reflect an artificial or desperate search for happiness. "To my mind, it's taking the child out of the natural environment where he has grown up and creating something that is too socially homogenous for him - something pleasant and not demanding," says Brawer, "a bubble of nature and wooden toys."

According to Ruth Ottolenghi, the Education Ministry turns a blind eye to the phenomenon, and yet at the same time is not doing enough to ensure that public schools will not be run in a way that makes parents will want to leave.

"The education system is suffering from a lack of funding, large class size and tremendous heterogeneity, and therefore also from violence," she says, noting that the rise of private institutions was made possible by the advent of the ultra-Orthodox stream of recognized but not always official schools: "Once the ministry approved those schools, a crack opened through which secular families came with the quite justified argument of equalizing conditions. As compared to the private institution, the ordinary school is a captive in the hands of the pupils. It can't be selective and distance problematic students. The state makes huge demands on the schools - to integrate special education cases, accept new immigrants, open heterogeneous classes of 40 children - but it isn't giving them the necessary tools. By contrast, at the private schools there is selection. I have no criticism of them, but rather of the state, which was supposed to have forbidden this. The more accepted it becomes, the more the competition becomes impossible and the chance the public schools will survive decreases."

Sternberg believes the elitist system is creating despair, and describes the guilt she has been feeling lately. Brawer agrees: "The private schools are creating terrible pressure," she says. "There are moments when I say to myself, 'You and your ideology. Maybe you should worry about your daughter.' But then I think that she is gaining other things, like education to equality. The thought that consoles me is that all the special and creative people around us grew up in schools that were even more unenlightened and depressing than they are today. This is a sign you don't need a special school in order to be special."