As of next month, elementary and high schools will no longer be allowed to send students and teachers on delegations outside Israel during the school year, the Education Ministry recently said.

The decision - which does not apply to trips to Poland and international competitions - is expected to affect the Partnership 2000 exchange program, in which dozens of delegations of Israeli pupils visit the United States through a cooperation between the Jewish Agency and various Jewish federations.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar decided a few months ago to implement a policy of maximum usage of classroom hours, which was stated as the reason for nixing the trips.

Schools that have already booked tickets for their delegations will be allowed to go ahead with the visit, but future trips will not be authorized.

Sa'ar's decision to put an end to the trips came after a Haaretz report two months ago about several delegations of elementary school children from Tel Aviv who left for the United States for two-weeks periods during the school year.

Last week the ministry's director-general, Shimshon Shoshani, informed schools that delegations will no longer be approved.

"We did not know about the elementary school delegations," Shoshani said. He added that the trips may have been allowed to continue, if it weren't for complaints of some parents about the controversial content of the trip - which formed the subject of Haaretz' s series of reports.

"The program was approved a long time ago and just allowed to go on," he explained. Since then, about 300 elementary school pupils from Tel Aviv left on delegations to the United States, along with a few dozen teachers.

In the Haaretz report, parents of 5th and 6th graders said the delegations centered too much on shopping and Disneyland instead of Israel-Diaspora relations and Judaism.

Tel Aviv's exchange program with Los Angeles plays a central role of the entire Partnership 2000 program. Since 1997, delegations from 19 Tel Aviv schools - seven of them elementary schools - have been sending delegations to Los Angeles.

Parents of students at the elementary Magen School in Tel Aviv who did not join their classmates on the exchange program with Los Angeles Jewish schools told Haaretz there was not much point in sending the children to school during the two-week program, as regular studies are not being conducted. Many parents asked that their names be withheld from the article.

More than 50 sixth-graders at Magen, in the northern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Maoz Aviv, who did not take part in the trip, watched movies, enjoyed leisure activities and were even dismissed early, parents said.

The Magen group which left for Los Angeles comprised 24 students and three teachers.

"If this project is so crucial, then the schools can schedule it for the summer, when the teachers are on holiday," Shoshani said.

Shoshani, like several parents from Magen, said that he doubts that the trips - which cost parents at least $1,700 per pupil - can help instill values in elementary school pupils.

"Anyone who says this is full of it, and this I say as former director-general of the Jewish Agency," he said.

The heads of the program said the trip was not "built around shopping malls," as some parents said, but helped instill Jewish values and make Jewish-American children more familiar with Israelis.

Two Tel Aviv elementary schools - the School for Nature, Environment and Society and the A.D. Gordon School - have decided to end their participation in the program.

Some parents also oppose the program because they see it as polarizing classrooms, where not all parents can afford to send their children to the United States. One of the parents, Eden Fox, said the decision to stop the trips "represents major progress" but that funding for trips must come entirely from the ministry or from the municipality, with subsidies for those who can't afford it and want to apply.

"We aren?t naïve. The expensive price is not fair and because of that, we have to rely on the ministry," Fox said. "There is much significance to what Shoshani said on the trip's strengthening of Jewish identity. When we complained about similar things, no one took what we were saying into account."

The chairwoman of the Los Angeles project's education committee, Dr. Bruria Agrest, responded that the program provides scholarships for children whose parents cannot afford to pay, and that though the Disneyland and Universal Studios theme parks figure into the program, the rest of the time is dedicated to Jewish life in Los Angeles.

She added she regretted to hear about Sa'ar decision, and that perhaps not all the program's elements had been presented to him. The added the decision would harm Tel Aviv schools as well as Los Angelino Jewry.