Government ministers adopted a plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to expand free preschool education from the age of 3 on Sunday.
The plan - approved by a 21-8 majority - calls for budget trimming in a variety of government ministries in order to pay for the reform. The plan calls for overall budget cuts of NIS 5.4 billion. It will relay NIS 2.5 billion to education, and add a gross total of NIS 3 billion to the defense budget. This translates to a net increase of NIS 1.5 billion.
Four Shas ministers joined Likud counterparts and MK Daniel Hershkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi ) in supporting the budget proposal submitted by Netanyahu and Steinitz.
After threatening to vote against the budget, MK Silvan Shalom (Likud ) threw his lot in favor of the budget after proposed cuts in projects in the Galilee and the Negev were scaled down. Four ministers from Habayit Hayehudi and four Atzmaut ministers voted against the plan.
Prior to the vote, the budget proposal was reformulated to clarify that government subsidies for afternoon education and care frameworks would be provided only to families in which both parents work.
Following the vote, Steinitz said the decision to improve the transparency and monitoring of defense budget allocations "is the fulfillment of a dream harbored by finance ministers for 30 years."
"During the coming decade, this move for transparency and monitoring in defense spending will save billions of shekels, money that can be allocated to education and social welfare projects," he said.
Steinitz added that Sunday's budget vote "turns Israel into one of the world's leading country's in preschool education, since the state will provide free education from the age of 3."
The defense budget monitoring measure and the free preschool policy, Steinitz contended, "constitute two historical decisions which will serve Israel and its citizens for years to come." Opening the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu declared that "education and security are the government's priorities today, and we are submitting proposals whose implementation will significantly strengthen those areas."
"We are on the threshold of a revolution in education," he said. "We've made significant changes and reforms in public schools, we've saved higher education and we've established centers for outstanding students."
Netanyahu added, "We are incorporating small children from the age of 3 in the free education system. This is something that has been discussed for 63 years, and now we are doing it. This is an exemplary policy; it helps young couples and working families."
Netanyahu explained that the extension of free education will mean the inclusion of 250,000 new children in the free public education system.
Netanyahu stressed that Sunday's budget vote comes as partial implementation of the recommendations by the Trajtenberg Committee, which was established in response to the summer's social protests.
Not everyone in the government applauded Sunday's budget decision, however. Defense Minister Ehud Barak claimed that the Netanyahu-Steinitz plan will bring about an NIS 3 billion cut in defense spending, and not the NIS 1.5 billion increase that is touted by the finance minister and the prime minister.
"This reduction means that the IDF will pass below the bare minimum needed for training and preparedness for the challenges we face," Barak said.
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