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The entire education system, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, will be on strike today in the north and south areas of the country, as the teachers' unions step up their protest against the failure to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the government. Nearly 525,000 pupils will stay at home as a result. Only schools in Sderot and other communities near the Gaza Strip will operate as usual.

In the north, the strike will affect schools from Rosh Hanikra to the Golan Heights, and from the Haifa suburbs to the Jordan Valley. In the south, the strike will close schools from Ashdod to Kiryat Gat and all schools south of Kiryat Malakhi (excluding Sderot and the other "Gaza envelope" communities).

In the past weeks the Teachers' Association held sporadic strikes of specific grade levels. Today's measures are viewed as a significant escalation.

The teachers are protesting against "continuous delays on the part of the Finance Ministry" in negotiations over a new collective wage agreement.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir called on the government yesterday to meet the teachers' demands for improved wages. She was speaking at the Herzliya Conference, where one of the forums dealt with various proposals for promoting excellence in the education system.

Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz last night petitioned the Labor Court to block today's strike.

The Chairman of the Secondary Schools Teachers' Association, Ran Erez, said that the "the attitude of the Israeli government to the education system, its problems, its deterioration and fatal condition, is one of equanimity. They have made no serious and practical offer to solving the problem."

Yossi Wasserman, Secretary General of the Teachers' Union, said that "the Finance Ministry has been avoiding any serious negotiations with the teachers' associations for some time. The meetings are set up only for the sake of appearences and not in order to find a genuine solution."

In response, the treasury issued a statement, according to which "the teachers are missing a real opportunity to improve their standing and wages and bring about reform in the education system."

During her address at the Herzliya Conference yesterday, Education Minister Tamir discussed the problem of funding in her ministry.

"There is no long-term change if there are no resources, and short-term change is not serious," she said.

"I presented the Prime Minister with a detailed program for change in the education system last June. The plan exists, but the problem is the government's commitment to education. A society that demands excellence must also give itself the tools to carry this out," she said, adding that "experts on defense will say that there is a need for millions of shekels for security. It is uncertain whether education can win in such a struggle, and someone needs to answer with regard to the price we are paying on a daily basis."