Among the women taking part in the social justice demonstrations and teaching their children to wave signs and shout "welfare state," the case of Yael Barda is somewhat special. At the end of the 1990s, Barda founded and managed Mahapach-Taghir, a social-welfare movement that assists residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods to fight for social rights such as housing and education.

Armed with experience in dealing with municipality and government officials, she studied law and specialized in governmental bureaucracy. She is now working on her doctoral thesis in Princeton University's sociology department. Her subject: The impact of the Mandate administration on population-registry systems in India and Israel.

Barda, 34, is married and the mother of a 9-month-old girl, Romi. Since giving birth she, like many mothers, has found herself maneuvering endlessly between working and looking after the baby. "I have a nanny three times a week for five hours, even though in terms of my work I need her for a whole week," she says. To save costs, on the two weekdays when she doesn't have the nanny Barda takes the baby to her parents' home in Jerusalem and works there while they look after the little girl.

Barda views the steep expenses involved in looking after children as unjust and injurious, particularly to women. "In practice, giving birth removes women from the workforce," she explains. "Under the current economic system, it makes no difference where your talents lie - the high costs of day care or a nanny makes women stay at home, because it doesn't pay to work. From the gender point of view, removing women from the workplace, and effectively from the decision-making process as well, is a deliberate affront by the decision makers."

Barda and her friends want the government to provide free education immediately after maternity leave ends. The question of subsidizing early-childhood education, and of taking care of young children in general, gets onto the public agenda every few years, usually in connection with efforts to encourage women to enter the labor market.

The logic behind subsidization is simple: More women will enter the workforce if there is someone to look after their children. This equation was understood by the decision makers in the first years of the state: witness the founding of day-care centers by the women's organizations WIZO, Na'amat and Emunah, and the enactment of the Compulsory Education Law in 1949. That law laid the foundation for free education for children but applied only to the 6-16 age group. More recently, the law was extended to cover everyone from 3 to 18, but in practice it is applied across the board only from the age of 5 to 16 (the tenth grade ), and only in part for the 3-5 and 16-18 groups.

The Education Ministry does not enforce the compulsory element of the law and subsidizes various educational frameworks selectively, based on a socioeconomic index. The situation is even more haphazard with the 0-3 age group. At present an effort is under way to correct this to a degree through legislation for day-care supervision, which recently passed first reading in the Knesset. Some children attend day-care facilities that are the responsibility of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, and there are others under the aegis of the Social Affairs Ministry. All other children are either at home or in private day care.

"There is a great deal of hypocrisy in Israeli society. On the one hand, we are encouraged hysterically to have children, but as soon as a child arrives the family is left to its own devices: 'Get along on your own,'" says Noga Klinger, a 34-year-old mother. Klinger is a marketing director at the Israeli Opera, her husband is a freelance copywriter; they live in the "old north" of Tel Aviv and pay NIS 3,400 a month for nursery school. "It's not because we looked for a nursery school that teaches English," she apologizes. "We tried to get into WIZO [which is less expensive] but weren't accepted."

These high costs make it impossible for them to own a car, so they get around on bicycles. "It's not easy to find a nursery school," Klinger continues. "This is what we found and this is the cost. We heard people saying, 'You had a child - now cope.' So we coped. I went back to work after a little more than three months, because my salary provided for the family."

Klinger adds that her mother claims things were better 40 years ago, because there was at least day care then, "but today, in the situation that has developed, it's not economically viable to work." It is unthinkable, she says, "that education is allowed to be at the mercy of market laws of supply and demand. It is inconceivable that people pay nannies NIS 6,000 a month in Tel Aviv or that day care in Tel Aviv costs NIS 1,000 more than in Holon."

Penny Sharon, who runs a private preschool facility in Petah Tikva, empathizes with parents and supports their struggle. She too hopes the government will assume greater responsibility. After years as a coordinator in public day-care centers, Sharon established a small privately run education system in a new neighborhood, whose name, in translation, is "the new garden village." The facility is attended by 55 children up to the age of 5, and tuition is NIS 2,700 a month. That may be cheaper than in Tel Aviv, but it's still expensive for young couples.

No public day-care units were built in the new Petah Tikva neighborhood and this year Sharon had to turn away more than 50 families. "People pay the equivalent of a second mortgage, but they have nowhere else to turn, because there are no creches. I see the difficulty they have in meeting the payments," says Sharon. However, she notes, "there is no way I can reduce the price, because I want to give quality. The cost of living, the increase in VAT - that affects me, too."

She adds that the municipality, instead of encouraging private preschool units in areas where there are no public facilities, makes her life harder by, for example, charging a levy for irregular use of a building.

Who's responsible?

The question of who is responsible for early-childhood education will become increasingly critical on a global scale in the years ahead, according to Prof. Ayal Kimhi, an economist and the deputy director of the Jerusalem-based Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. Economists, Kimhi says, are starting to understand that early-childhood education has a lifelong impact and affects salary-earning capability.

Similarly, Dr. Shirley Avrami, the director of the Knesset's Research and Information Center, maintains that "the notion that the state must take responsibility for children is increasingly gaining ground everywhere." Various solutions have been adopted by different countries, and attitudes toward subsidization vary, she adds. Europe, for example, has become aware of the subject because it has been inundated by waves of migrants. "There is more understanding in Europe for the idea of integrating children into education at an early stage, because of the need to advance the children of migrants," Avrami notes. In Germany, a law mandating free early-childhood education was recently passed, in order to encourage a higher birthrate. Scandinavian countries provide subsidized child-care options from the age of 1.

A different approach exists in the United States, where expenses incurred in caring for children are tax deductible, as is the cost of summer camp. If the state is responsible for the educational framework, it can supervise the service and the quality and number of staff, but there is less choice for parents, says Avrami. On the other hand, she notes, when tax credits are granted there is less supervision of quality. "A country has to ask itself whether it will respond to the distress of the middle class or understands the importance of education. Parents, too, need to ask whether they demand an improvement in the quality of life and of education."

Another solution to child-care problems, Prof. Kimhi says, is to give working mothers tax credits. His colleague at the Taub Center, senior economist Nachum Blass, is concerned about the high cost of subsidizing day-care centers. According to Blass' calculation, applying the Compulsory Education Law to toddlers will cost NIS 1.5 billion, which includes tuition fees, manpower and training teachers.

Even if the state bears this budget burden, parents will get only a partial solution. "What about an afternoon child-care facility?" ask Barda and Klinger, as this comes at a higher cost than morning care - something that is often incompatible with parents' hours of work. They also want the number of holidays to be reduced, so that "parents will not think with foreboding about summer vacation and Isru Hag [the day following each of the three pilgrimage festivals] and all kinds of other unjustified days off," Klinger says.

According to Blass, it might be more logical to recognize the expenses involved in child care for tax purposes. But in that case, mothers who earn NIS 5,000 a month would currently not benefit (benefits for child-care expenses are linked to the tax bracket, and the lower the taxes paid, the fewer the benefits ). When Barda is informed of the budgetary implications of subsidizing these child-care costs, she covers her ears. The talk about solutions and money is "government spin," she says.

Barda maintains that "there is no need to discuss budgetary sources." The government, she says, "passes the risk on to the citizen. It's as though the government announced a safety defect and didn't act to repair it. It's a flight from responsibility. What is happening now is that the government is saying, 'We will hide the information and quench the struggle' - because it will take time for the protesters to study the legislation. That is an infringement of democracy.

"Money is a matter of organization and public responsibility," Barda continues. "The first thing to do is change the order of priorities." The immediate administrative change she is talking about is the transfer of responsibility for the 0-3 age group from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry to the Education Ministry. "There, at least, they deal with education and not with commerce," she says.

Currently Barda is a mouthpiece for hundreds of parents who want to tell her about their problems and hopes via Facebook, e-mail and telephone. "We have something big in hand," Barda says. "People feel that something important is not working."

Reflecting aloud, she adds, "Possibly an education reform will not be enough, and elections won't help here, either. We have to change the system."