"In another year or two I'll take early retirement. It won't be because of burnout, or because I've lost interest in the students. On the contrary. I will retire because I won't be able to look myself in the mirror any longer. I cannot continue living in a system that has forgotten that education also refers to values, not just to quantifiable achievements; that we are supposed to try to fix the world and not acquiesce to reality. This gap, which has increasingly grown in recent years, is what will break me."

Naomi (not her real name), an elementary school principal in the Dan region, pauses to consider the significance of her words. Her school belongs to the Israeli "mainstream": a state school, a student body around 500, middle class. With 15 years under her belt as a principal and another 20 as a teacher, she says: "There is almost no room left for optimism. The strength to carry on can be drawn only from internal motivation. Working in the school system has become a very lonely job."

The picture she outlines - bits from a reality of overcrowded classrooms and cutbacks in instruction hours, meddling by parents and semi-private bodies - contrasts starkly with the one depicted by Education Ministry heads. The gap is so great that at times it seems like one is dealing with alternate universes. This is also why she agreed to be interviewed under a pseudonym. She's got another year or two until retirement.

First the facts. Between 2000 and 2007, the education budget was slashed by NIS 4.16 billion. Most of the cuts were during Limor Livnat's ministership, but the 2007 budget, Yuli Tamir's responsibility, took another hit of NIS 301 million. Some 40 percent of the cuts were to instruction hours. The aggregate damage: 248,000 instruction hours eliminated and 12,000 teachers fired.

However, the cutbacks by themselves do not explain the "education blues" - that hard-to-define sorrow that comes up in almost every conversation with those employed in the field. Behind that sorrow are not only the lost classroom hours, but also criticism about the absence of an education leadership that would give schools a new vision.

Signs of this are more readily found in state schools than in other sectors, which are flourishing. (The Central Bureau of Statistics predicts that the rate of pupils at state elementary schools will drop to 50 percent, and that nearly every third pupil will be under ultra-Orthodox supervision.)

"The feeling is that the state has abandoned the school system to cutbacks, has essentially forfeited education," Naomi says. There is another dimension besides money to this forfeiture - giving up on dealing with questions like what are the curriculum goals or what the optimum graduate should look like. Basic objectives such as narrowing gaps and encountering the other, which not too long ago were declared Education Ministry goals, are barely mentioned anymore. In an ongoing process, education is being emptied of content.

In place of substantive issues, the ministry - and through it some of the schools - focuses on setting and chasing after standardized assessments. These were also the emphases this week at a gathering in Tel Aviv of principals, convened by the ministry's director general, Shmuel Abuav.

After the impressive PowerPoint presentation detailing the goals and plans for raising the rate of matriculation eligibility, one principal asked where the attention to values such as integrity and decency had gone. According to several of the participants at the conference, the question went unanswered.

"We have forgotten our ultimate objective - to educate our youth," admits the principal of a large high school in Tel Aviv. "These are not abstract things, and there is even broad agreement about them. The problem is that it's hard to measure the output of real education, and politicians don't have time. So they manipulate the data on eligibility for a matriculation certificate, to enable them to announce an increase in the rate of eligibility."

As the Education Ministry has divested itself of economic and pedagogic assets, principals have come to feel deserted, left to contend alone with the conflicting demands of students, parents, teachers, local authorities and the ministry.

Ministry officials continue to send directives to schools, but in ever-widening areas the control is imaginary. "Every month the ministry D-G issues directives via 'the D-G's memo,'" says the Tel Aviv principal. "Not too many principals get worked up over the prohibitions against dropping students and collecting excessive fees from parents, or orders to use only approved textbooks. The 'memo' pays lip service to the idea that there is still one school system that can be controlled."

If the ministry can't (or won't) set an education agenda, then that responsibility falls on the schools themselves, principals say. A strong principal can give his or her school a particular character, but not all principals are like that, one Jerusalem principal concedes. "It's a lot easier to keep your head down, make it through another day." Under such conditions, the agenda is set by others. The parents, for example.

Principals interviewed for this article tell horror stories about meddlesome parents, which is also a reflection on the weakness of education. "One of the considerations in assigning teachers to new classes is an effort to note which of the parents has connections with City Hall - and weak teachers won't be assigned there," Naomi says. "Parents don't hesitate to exert such pressure. It's a type of blackmail that weakens me as principal."

Then there are parents who have turned their backs on public education. According to an internal ministry report completed a month ago, there are at least 200 niche schools that are not limited by registration area, in the state and state-religious system as well as in the department for "education that is recognized but not official." A decade ago these numbered 15.