In recent months, Israel's Union of Local Authorities and the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee met with the Education Ministry to devise a new plan to close gaps in educational infrastructure between Jewish and Arab sectors in Israel. The goal of meetings held until last week was to reach a precedent-setting agreement, which would define the gaps and outline measures to minimize them. The Union of Local Authorities says the plan calls for an investment of NIS 5-6 million to be distributed over five years.

A draft of the agreement reads, "over the years and for a variety of reasons, a gap was created in allocation of resources between all branches of Hebrew and Arabic education, including Bedouin and Druze sectors. This gap is expressed in reduced levels of educational services and lower achievement in Arabic education." According to the agreement, a decision was reached, "to narrow the gap within five years, by 2012." Participants in these meetings say the Education Ministry currently opposes this time frame and prefers to spread the investment over 10 years. "Long-term plans like this one tend to drag on beyond 12 years and evaporate while students enter and leave the education system," says Dr. Danny Gera, an economic consultant to the Union of Local Authorities. The plan details the additional cost of building 6,900 classrooms in the Arab sector and adding 3,200 teaching hours. (The gap between teaching hours allotted to Arabs and Jews stands at 13.6 percent.) The plan also calls for an additional 108 "truancy officers" to prevent drop-outs, some 400 counselors and 250 psychologists.

The Union of Local Authorities says its bases the number of classrooms needed on internal Education Ministry statistics. According to these figures, in 2009, an estimated 5,700 new classrooms will be required for the Arab sector to maintain the same level of crowding as in the Jewish sector. In 2012, an additional 400 classrooms will be required annually to keep pace with natural growth. Dr. Gera estimates the cost of these new classrooms to be about NIS 3.8 billion.

Meetings between the Union of Local Authorities, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee and the Education Ministry began seven months ago. Union of Local Authorities chairman Adi Eldar and education committee chairwoman Yael German both support the initiative.

Some union personnel fear the Education Ministry will shirk its responsibility to close gaps between the two sectors. "When the school year opened, Education Minister Yuli Tamir presented her plan in a major conference but she failed to speak about Arabs," said Kamal Rayan, the Union of Local Authorities' deputy director for advancing the Arab sector. "When local council leaders asked me about it, I thought Tamir was a doer rather than a talker. Now I fear that she neither speaks nor does." The Education Ministry says in response, "Tamir does a great deal to advance the education system in the Arab sector." With regard to the plan, the ministry responded, "we did meet with the Union of Local Authorities and the 'Higher Arab Monitoring Committee' to achieve an agreement. The document is still unsigned and insufficiently formulated."