On Monday morning some 270,000 Israeli children - 85% of the youngsters aged 3-4 - will start free public preschool. Over three years, the entire public preschool program from age 3 up is supposed to become free, and this will save some NIS 8,000 a year per child for their parents, says the Education Ministry - at least for those whose parents had the money to send them to preschool.

Thirty four 3- and 4-year-olds will start on Monday at Tamar's preschool. Tamar, not her real name, runs a preschool in the center of the country. For the past five months she has been preparing: She has learned her new profession in this short period, which in normal times would have taken four years of professional training as a certified preschool teacher.

Tamar did her "lightning" training program at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College in Tel Aviv over the past few months. The college, as did other teachers colleges all over the country, took on the project of training a large number of new preschool teachers in a very short time frame, in an attempt to implement the recommendations of the Trajtenberg committee on socioeconomic reform, of which one of the main recommendations was such free preschool for all from age 3.

The entire project was conceived of and implemented in only eight months. "I am doing this out of choice," said Tamar, "but there is no doubt we will learn it all while [working]. The first thing that was done backward was that our government decided something without understanding what was involved, since we all know how to speak in slogans. But in the short time we did what we could as fast as we could," said Tamar.

"We didn't manage to build," said an official from the Union of Local Authorities, "so we found bomb shelters, municipal buildings, everything to open the [school] year."

Preschool permits

Only half the preschools that received building permits actually have been completed so far, said the official, "but we hope to complete another 20% by October, and the rest by the end of the school year."

But the complaints don't only involve the tight schedule. As opposed to the original recommendations, the preschool classrooms will have up to 35 children each - with a very small team of workers, just one teacher and an assistant.

In comparison, in 2008, the "committee for examining preschool education methods and their relationship to maximizing the benefit of school," headed by Prof. Pnina Klein of Bar-Ilan University, recommended having only 14 to 16 children aged 3-4 in a class with two staff.

The ULA and the association of the heads of municipal educational departments warned the Education Ministry that this must change: Either more staff is needed or fewer children in a class. The number of children per staff member is inappropriate for these ages and experience has taught that 20% of children are not yet toilet trained at this age, they wrote the ministry, and asked for the matter to be reexamined.

Even though a large part of the intentions behind the free preschool was to close socioeconomic gaps, this may turn out to have the opposite effects. For example, better off municipalities have taken on themselves to increase the number of staff at the town's expense, or to lower the number of children in each class - a possibility that poorer towns are unable to do.

For example, in Be'er Sheva 3,620 children aged 3 and 4 signed up for the free preschools, but the city had room for only 1,750 of them - and all the classes are filled to the 35-child limit. But in nearby Omer the average is 25 children in each class - at the city's expense. In addition, Omer was able to completely outfit every preschool with the necessary equipment, something most other towns had a hard time doing.

Another worry is the lack of supervisors on the municipal level, as the number of preschools increased, but not the number of supervisors funded by the Education Ministry, despite promises.