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At its weekly meeting in Jerusalem yesterday, the cabinet approved the Education Ministry's five-year, NIS 4.6 billion plan to construct 7,000 new classrooms.

According to the ministry's plan, roughly 550 new classrooms will be built in the Arab sector each year, about 390 new classrooms will be built annually in the ultra-Orthodox sector, and an estimated 460 rooms will be built in public and religious public schools.

In addition, about 1,000 classrooms will be built to reduce the current use of substandard classrooms. Ministry officials estimate that the education system is currently short of some 5,000 classrooms.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a Jerusalem news conference that in the coming five years the number of students will increase by 1.4 percent, while the number of classrooms will increase by 3.2 percent.

"The ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations ... have a serious lack of classrooms," said Olmert.

"The modern school must have air conditioning, projectors, television and options for distance-learning. This is a more sophisticated and complex system than what we were used to in the past and we intend to meet these standards. The education issue will determine quality of life in the State of Israel."

According to Education Minister Yuli Tamir, the proposal allows for long-term planning and is "the right step from the social standpoint.

"The construction of new classrooms will be based on natural growth and will therefore focus primarily on the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors," she added.

A joint committee comprised of representatives from the Prime Minister's Office, as well as the education and finance ministries, will present the government with recommendations for dividing up the new classrooms among the different sectors for its approval within two weeks.