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The Education Ministry has strung together all the cliches - "streamlining," "priorities," "painful decisions" and "there is no other choice" - and has cut the 2008 budget for Hebrew language ulpan intensive study programs by 50 percent. This drastic reduction in funding is expected to result in the dismissal of 350 teachers - and this is only the first step in a revolution in the State of Israel's approach to the ulpan programs. Education Minister Yuli Tamir has decided to transfer the responsibility for teaching Hebrew to the Absorption Ministry, which has already announced its intentions to privatize this service and hand it over to commercial bodies.

Ulpan teachers are now gearing up to struggle for their jobs, a struggle that will probably not receive even a fraction of the media coverage accorded to the secondary school teachers' strike. Last week the ulpan teachers set up their headquarters.

"We are in a strange situation," says one teacher. "People come to us from Spain, Estonia and Latvia to learn our language, and now we are having to struggle for our existence." The teachers are prepared to discuss efficiency measures, but feel this is not the real purpose of the budget cut. "No one is even willing to meet with us," says the teacher. "The issue is not whether we are working properly or not, but that the state wants to privatize us."

Thirteen thousand new immigrants study at dozens of ulpans throughout the country. Each immigrant receives 500 hours of Hebrew instruction for five to six months as part of his "absorption basket." The ulpans are still under the authority of the Education Ministry's adult education department, but the Absorption Ministry wants to change this. Under the proposal currently being deliberated, new immigrants will receive vouchers to pay for Hebrew courses given by private companies. The companies will be paid by the state, which will set up a Hebrew studies authority to oversee the private institutions.

"The idea of privatizing Hebrew studies has been haunting us for years," says Meir Peretz, former director of the Education Ministry's adult education department. According to him, an initial examination of this subject revealed that privatization would not necessarily save money, since the payment relayed by the government to the private teaching companies could be more than the cost of the existing ulpans.

Even before privatization, the ulpans will face an NIS 40-million slashing of their budget. Various sources say this cut follows Tamir's commitment to the Finance Ministry that the Education Ministry would bear part of the cost of the "New Horizon" reform plans for the elementary education system. Tamir's ministry promised to provide about NIS 170 million in 2008 for this purpose, out of a total of NIS 800 million to be spent over 6 years.

"The Education Ministry made commitments it couldn't meet," said one party to the discussions on the financing of the reforms. Further proof of this can be found in remarks by Education Ministry Director General Shlomit Amichai at a hearing held by the Knesset Absorption Committee about two weeks ago, concerning the ulpan budget cuts.

"There was an obligation to raise the teachers' salaries, at an investment of billions, including the Education Ministry's commitment to participate in the cost. I, too, feel that perhaps the ministry took on too much, but this is the reality," said Amichai.

Have the ulpans failed?

In general, the minutes of the Knesset Absorption Committee meeting arouse the suspicion that the Education Ministry's upper echelon has decided first to rid itself of the Hebrew ulpans and only then examine the ramifications of such a move. Who, for example, will be responsible for the ulpans?

"In our current difficult situation," Amichai told committee members, "I would be quite happy - and I say this also in the name of Minister Tamir - to propose that the Absorption Ministry accept responsibility for the ulpans, while receiving all possible assistance from us." In response, Absorption Ministry Director General Erez Halfon said, "First, it would be appropriate to speak with us before [the decision] and see if we are able [to do so]. Let's say you spoke to us, and we held meetings and decided that we are ready and willing, the only thing we can do is to privatize via private schools."

Halfon met with Amichai on Sunday and the two decided to establish a joint committee to examine the future of the ulpans.

One of the claims raised by the Absorption Ministry (and to a certain extent also by senior Education Ministry officials) to justify the privatization of the ulpans is that studies conducted in recent years show that immigrants who learned Hebrew in ulpans were not very proficient in the language and did not use it much in their day-to-day lives. Sources at the Absorption Ministry add that about 50 percent of new immigrants do not go to ulpan classes, or do not complete their courses. According to other figures, published recently by Haaretz, most of the immigrants who complete their ulpan studies speak Hebrew on a poor to mediocre level.

The ulpan teachers and professionals at the Education Ministry read the figures and gave their own responses. Peretz noted that the Absorption Ministry's surveys are based on asking the immigrants if they feel they have gained sufficient proficiency in Hebrew, but the comparison made by the immigrants is always to their knowledge of their mother tongue. "The right question," he says, "concerning what level of Hebrew each immigrant had at the start of the ulpan and what level he had at the end, is hardly ever asked."

The Absorption Ministry countered that the data was based on several surveys, all with similar findings.

The teachers present different statistics. A study conducted last year by the Absorption Ministry itself tried to identify the causes for the differences between the immigrants who acquired a good command of Hebrew and those who failed to do so. According to that study, apart from the effect of an immigrant's age upon his or her arrival in Israel, the study of Hebrew and particularly the length of time spent studying in an ulpan in Israel was the strongest factor behind the differences. "Even for using Hebrew as their everyday language," noted the report, "people who learned in an ulpan have an advantage over others."

There are other encouraging statistics, being published here for the first time. At the end of each ulpan program, the students are tested in reading, listening comprehension and verbal communication. The conclusion from the results of the tests conducted between September and November 2007 is that only 4 percent of the 689 students tested failed. Fifty-three percent of the students scored 80 percent or higher.

Tamir: Immigration is declining

Tamir says the budget cut to the ulpans "stems from the drastic decline in the number of new immigrants. Even the Jewish Agency is closing absorption centers. We have to become more cost-effective."

Even so, Tamir has promised to make sure that no immigrant is hurt by the cuts, "but that doesn't mean all the ulpans will retain their current format," she said.

Amichai offers a different reason for the cutbacks, namely that the reduced ministry budgets in the past few years have forced ministry officials to decide which activities are "the core responsibilities of the ministry, for which the ministry is liable in full, compared to matters that are not central, such as adult education, which includes the ulpans." Still, Amichai says that the ministry "cares very deeply," about the other matters.

According to Tamir, the decision to transfer the ulpans to the Absorption Ministry has nothing to do with the quality of the work at the ulpans, and adds that contrary to statements by Halfon, the transfer "does not necessarily mean privatization. There are other options, such as operating ulpans inside absorption centers. In conjunction with the Absorption Ministry, we will determine the best way to teach the new immigrants Hebrew."

"The ministry feels that the new immigrants' level of Hebrew is not satisfactory," said an Absorption Ministry source, adding that one of the ways to improve the teaching of Hebrew is "having it taught by private schools that specialize in teaching languages."

The source also noted that the ministry "recognizes the importance of the ulpan teachers."