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The High Court of Justice was set to rule Sunday on the Education Ministry's request to implement reforms aimed at helping disadvantaged students and reducing inequality. The budgets allotted for this purpose have been dramatically reduced due to the ministry's division of school hours per student.

The reforms are intended to be implemented over the course of five years starting September 1.

Senior Education Ministry officials recently decided to allocate a budget for only 60,000 hours of affirmative action for disadvantaged elementary school students based on their socio-economic status, out of a budget of 1.1 million elementary school hours. This is a mere 5 percent of all elementary school hours funded by the budget.

The High Court ruled in February 2006 the use of "national priority areas" in determining education budgets - which constitutes 20 percent of the ministry's budget - discriminates against the country's Arab sector. While the Education Ministry has agreed to scrap this system, the cut-backs they have made to affirmative action funding means that the new more egalitarian system will have very little effect.

The High Court ruling forbade the continuation of the system whereby for this past four years elementary school curriculum hours have been budgeted according to the "Shoshani Index," named after the commission on whose recommendations it was based.

The index sets a differential standard for each student, using criteria such as the family's country of origin and date of immigration to Israel (when applicable) and the community's status as a "national priority" location. Each student is classified according to the socioeconomic decile of his or her family, with each decile receiving a different number of classroom hours. The overall number of curriculum hours for each school is the sum of the classroom time allocated for its students.

In place of this system, the ministry's Chief Scientist, Prof. Sidney Strauss, framed a new allocation method. The "Strauss Index," which is being introduced for the first time, consists of four elements: the parents' education level; the family's annual net income; the country of origin of the child and of the parents; and whether the child lives in the geographic periphery of the country.

Under the new plan the use of "national priority areas" in determining elementary school budgets will be scrapped in favor of ensuring an adequate basic funding level with additions for underserved populations.

These reforms would have reduced funding for schools on settlements in the territories, which are currently considered national priority areas, and increase funding for schools in Arab communities. However, the decision to allocate such a low percentage of school hours to the "Straus Index" means that in fact there will not be any dramatic changes.

Hebrew University economics Professor Ruth Klinov said: "The ministry program constitutes a serious retreat from the progressive principles of the Shoshani index. This is in fact a renunciation of the affirmative action policy."

A senior official well acquainted with Education Ministry considerations said "the Straus Index is more just and egalitarian than the Shoshani index, but it will have zero effect. It is impossible to reduce socio-economic gaps with just 5 percent of school hours."