One of the great wonders of our day is the silence emanating from the Education Ministry. The last time around, in the emergency economic package of April 2002, when NIS 300 million was chopped from the education budget, Minister Limor Livnat voted against the government, arguing that the cut was a fatal blow to education. She also stayed away from the Knesset on the day of that famous vote when the plan was defeated and Shas ministers were fired. But now, Livnat is voting for the cuts and has not let slip a word of criticism to the press. Nor is her director-general, Ronit Tirosh, saying that the cut is impossible, that it's cutting into the living flesh, that the level of education will decline. What's going on here?
Two weeks before Silvan Shalom presented his cuts to the government he met with Livnat. Not that the two are now in love, but they reached the conclusion that their brawling was shedding their own blood and harming their public stature. They agreed on a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, because it's clear the day will come in the primaries when they will be at war once again.
Thus, for a partisan political purpose, the simple truth is exposed: the Education Ministry, with its NIS 24 billion budget, is not efficient, and its budget can indeed be reduced. When international comparisons are made, it turns out the national expenditure on education in Israel is one of the highest in the world, but the achievements of its school system are one of the lowest in the areas in which comparisons are made: English and mathematics.
The cut, which has yet to be detailed in the media, will cover several areas in the system where the inefficiency is particularly rampant:
1. Class hours. The cut refers to cutting 80,000 hours, which translates into NIS 360 million a year. Because the cut only goes into effect in September 2003, only NIS 120 million will be saved. Out of the 80,000 hours, more than half (45,000) will result from firing burned-out and unnecessary teachers. This includes, for example, 1,200 teachers in Home Economics and Sewing - subjects no longer taught in the schools. Altogether, 2,200 teachers will be fired. The other 35,000 hours will be cut by reducing 45 minutes a week on average from every class.
2. Districts. In addition to the ministry's center of operations in Jerusalem, the ministry has seven districts throughout the country. Each has a staff ranging from dozens to hundreds of people, and most of them are unnecessary. So far, the decision is to cut the settlement district, a national district that actually overlaps the other districts.
3. Inspectors. Undeniably, there are too many inspectors in the system, and as the commentary in the budget book says, "the inspection system in the ministry has a unnecessarily complicated structure and is inefficient." Fifty out of 850 inspectors will be sent to retirement, for a savings of NIS 10 million.
4. Teaching seminars. Over the years the number of teaching seminars in the country has reached an extraordinary 40. The budget proposes combining the teachers' colleges with the regular academic colleges, resulting in further savings.
5. Construction. In 2001, there were 1,400 new classrooms built in the country. In 2002, another 1,000 will be built, and in 2003, another 500. The average cost of a classroom is half a million shekels, and on average each one takes three years to build.
6. Supplementary education for teachers. From now on the supplementary education payments made by teachers for sabbaticals will be linked to their field of expertise. The resultant savings are estimated at NIS 30 million.
7. Small schools. Schools with less than 150 pupils will be combined with nearby schools.
Privately, Livnat and Tirosh admit that there are pockets of inefficiency in the school system that need to be dealt with but its clear that every budget cut is like pulling teeth when the teachers' unions are stronger than the ministry administration and effectively run the system. In short: Get ready for the upcoming strike.
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