Analysis / How Much Does Each ultra-Orthodox Pupil Cost Us?

The education minister has admitted that state education is declining, while ultra-Orthodox education is flourishing

Ultra-Orthodox high school students in Israel do not study for matriculation exams. They have no reason to. They learn in a yeshiva - for men only, of course - and in most cases do not learn English, math, civics or literature, but rather only Judaic subjects. In many yeshivas studies are conducted in the traditional format of huge study halls with hundreds of students, taught by one rabbi.

When they complete their yeshiva high school studies, these boys will go on to learn in more advanced yeshivas, as part of a track that grooms ultra-Orthodox men for biblical and talmudic studies only, and the exclusion of all other studies. And the exclusion of work, of course.

In this, the ultra-Orthodox boys are different from their contemporaries who learn at state schools - religious or secular - who spend their time in physics and chemistry labs, as part of their preparation for matriculation exams.

Despite the fundamental difference between the two types of students and the value the state derives from them, from the perspective of the Israeli legislature the students are all the same. All are eligible for practically the same budgets. State school students enjoy a partial supplement to their school budget, for preparing for the matriculation exams. Even so, the Israeli government calculates its budgeting for both types of students and both types of schools identically.

Why? Even Education Minister Yuli Tamir has no good answer to that question.

"The overriding goal of the education system," Tamir told TheMarker, "is to educate toward good citizenship and to turn each student into an intelligent and knowledgeable person. The definition of a quality education, however, varies according to ideology. The State of Israel decided to grant an education to every child in keeping with his parents' beliefs - the state recognizes religious pluralism with respect to education, too."

It was easier for Tamir to respond to TheMarker's questions concerning elementary school pupils. Their schools, unlike those of the high school students, are clearly categorized into state schools and ultra-Orthodox schools. The distinction is based on the teaching of a core curriculum determined by the Education Ministry.

Schools that teach the whole curriculum are eligible for full funding. Schools that choose to exercise their educational freedom and accept only part of the curriculum are supposed to receive commensurate budgeting. According to this rule, the ultra-Orthodox schools should be receiving only 55-75 percent of the budgets allocated to the state schools. Due to the political clout of two ultra-Orthodox Knesset factions - Shas and Agudat Israel, however, their ultra-Orthodox school networks (Maayan Hachinuch Hatorani and the Independent Education Center), which agreed to teach the full core curriculum, receive the same budgets as state schools.

Thus equal budgeting was made contingent on equal curriculum content at the schools. The problem is, however, that the budgeting was provided but the core curriculum is apparently not being taught.

Since the Education Ministry has too few supervisors, or hardly ever sends them to the ultra-Orthodox schools (including the two big ultra-Orthodox school networks), it is impossible to tell whether or not the ultra-Orthodox schools are keeping their commitment. The fact is that what little supervision there has been of the ultra-Orthodox schools has revealed that at least 25 percent of them are not teaching the full core curriculum. Even so, they continue to receive full funding.

The equal budgeting is also not what it seems. TheMarker has learned that the state elementary and high schools attended by 843,000 students receive a budget of NIS 6,741 per student annually. In comparison, the elementary schools attended by the 148,000 ultra-Orthodox pupils get budgets of NIS 3,443 (for teaching 55 percent of the core curriculum), NIS 4,356 (for 75 percent) and NIS 8,168 (the two networks) per pupil. This means that the ultra-Orthodox schools are budgeted at an average of NIS 6,300 per pupil annually - almost as much as the state schools, despite the disparity in the standard of education. In the high schools, the effect of the budgeting for the matriculation exams results in a wider gap: NIS 7,076 per ultra-Orthodox student, compared with NIS 9,164 and NIS 10,047 per student in the state and state religious schools, respectively. Even so, the different sums do not adequately reflect the differences in the level of service the state schools students receive compared to the ultra-Orthodox school students. For example, while state schools have an average of 30 students per class, the figure is only 23 in the ultra-Orthodox schools.

It is no wonder, then, that the education minister has admitted that state education is declining, while ultra-Orthodox education is flourishing.

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