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The Ministerial Committee on Legislation is scheduled to discuss a bill that would require local authorities to provide the same funding as the Education Ministry does to unofficial but recognized schools. The bill, sponsored by Minister in the Finance Ministry Meshulam Nehari, is aimed primarily at increasing funds for ultra-Orthodox schools. According to the Union of Local Authorities (ULA), the budget boost would come to about NIS 400 million annually.

"Shas will not compromise on equality for unofficial, recognized schools. We will insist on it, up to the point of not supporting the state budget," Nehari said.

The amount that local governments would be expected to contribute has not been established. Education Ministry and ULA officials warn that if the bill passes, it could reduce the money available to state schools. The bill will not be put to a vote until the costs associated with it are known.

The bill, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, would extend the terms of the State Education Law of 1953 currently applicable to state and state-religious schools to the unofficial but recognized schools in each local jurisdiction. The vast majority of the latter are Haredi institutions, with a much smaller number of democratic or other type of private school.

Proponents of the bill cite the rising numbers of students in unofficial, recognized schools, from about 100,000 in 1995 to more than 200,000 today.

At present, funding for state schools is shared by the Education Ministry (75 percent) and local government (25 percent). Ministry funding for unofficial, recognized schools ranges from 55 percent to 100 percent. Shas and Agudat Yisrael schools receive full ministry funding.

ULA chair Adi Eldar opposes the bill on the grounds that local governments do not have the money to fund private education. The local authorities disburse about NIS 2.8 billion annually for education.

Education Ministry officials are carefully monitoring the progress of Nehari's bill. "It's not 'equalizing conditions' between Haredi and state education, but rather [granting] 'preferred conditions,'" a senior official who is participating in discussions on the bill said. "In any event most of the Haredi institutions are fully funded by the ministry, and now they want the local authorities to do the same. The official education [system] is supposed to have priority, but in practice it has been undermined. If the treasury suddenly has extra money, why doesn't it use it to save the state schools?"

Education Minister Yuli Tamir said the issue "demands thorough discussion, and the proposed bill will not be carried out without compensation to the local authorities. As soon as we know the source of the money, we will discuss all the questions." Tamir added that "if the amendment is passed, it would definitely represent a significant strengthening of Haredi education."

It should be noted that the 2007 state budget already includes a NIS 54 million addition to ultra-Orthodox schools.