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The NIS 700-million investment in education over the next two years as part of the rehabilitation of the North will not close gaps between Jews and Arabs in this part of the country, and might even increase them, according to the Union of Local Authorities (ULA).

According to Kamal Rian, the ULA deputy director general for the advancement of the Arab sector, the Education Ministry has yet to formulate all the criteria for the distribution of funding in the main clauses of the plan to rehabilitate the North following the second Lebanon war.

This lack of clear criteria, and the fact that foundations and external bodies are contributing NIS 340 million of the total sum - money that need not be distributed in an egalitarian fashion according to Education Ministry guidelines - means it is less likely that Arab schools will receive the 55 percent of the program's funding to which they are entitled according to their portion in the population of school children in the North.

"The Education Ministry is using the program to escape its obligations to close the gap between Jews and Arabs in Israel," Rian says. "Not only is there no assurance that the gaps in the North will really close, but the status of Arab education in the rest of the country will remain unchanged."

According to the proposed Education Ministry budget for 2007, funding for the "program for the advancement of minority education" has been reduced from NIS 39 million to NIS 29 million, and the budget for the advancement of Druze education has been reduced from NIS 532,000 to NIS 389,000.

Education Ministry director general Shmuel Abuav explained last week that the funding decline is due to additional allocations the Arab communities received as part of the rehabilitation program for the North, and a five-year plan for the Arab sector. According to ULA estimates, to close the gaps in educational infrastructure between Jews and Arabs, another NIS 5 to 6 billion is needed over a five-year period.

Seven months ago, Dr. Danny Gera, an economic advisor to the ULA, submitted a detailed report to the Education Ministry on the funding gaps in educational resources between the Jewish and the Arab sectors. The report focused on the most basic needs - overcrowding in the classrooms, insufficient numbers of classrooms, the differences in the number of hours the children in each sector study, and a lack of counselors, psychologists and truancy officers in the Arab sector.

Since that time, a group from the ULA, headed by Rian, has met a number of times with the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee's team on education, in order to reach an agreement on how to close the gaps. The meetings won the support of ULA head Adi Eldar, and the chair of its education committee, Yael German. But in a recent meeting, according to Rian and Gera, it was once again argued that the Arab sector will benefit from money it will receive through the northern rehabilitation program.

"We realized that the criteria for the distribution of the funds in most of the clauses have not yet been decided," Gera says. "In fact, a decision has been made only regarding clauses dealing with the separation of grades one and two into smaller groups, and the issue of supplies. In all three cases the Arabs will receive funding proportionate to their numbers in the population. That is progress, but not in closing the gaps. In the five remaining clauses in the budget [new classroom construction, improvement of school infrastructure, human resource development in teaching, working to improve the level of weaker schools and informal education], we have not yet received the Education Ministry criteria for distribution to ensure that at least the gaps will not grow," Rian says.

The major involvement of outside contributors such as the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee-Israel and the Sacta-Rashi Foundation is a greater problem than the lack of formulated criteria. The ULA believe the Arab communities will receive at most about 20 percent of this funding.

When Education Minister Yuli Tamir presented the education rehabilitation program in the North, she said 55 percent of the budget would go to Arab, Druze and Circassian children. Yesterday Tamir said she was referring only to the Education Ministry funds. Abuav said yesterday that the missing funding, approximately NIS 100 million, will come from the five-year plan.

During the last meeting between the Education Ministry and the ULA it was determined that the gap should be closed in five years with the construction of 5,700 classrooms, the addition of 3,200 teaching positions, the closing of the 13.6 percent gap in hours, and the addition of 108 truancy officers, approximately 400 counselors and 250 psychologists.