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Education Ministry director general Shimshon Shoshani has given his backing to the Herzliya municipal council to continue with its NIS 6,000 a year "science leadership" class at the Yad Giora middle school, according to several participants in Shoshani's visit to the city last Thursday.

One of these sources told Haaretz that "Shoshani was really happy about the project, and said that he had no problem with it." Another source added that "the Education Ministry has no intention of checking the permits granted to this kind of class at the school." As of Saturday night, the ministry had refused to respond to these statements.

On Friday, Haaretz reported that the Yad Giora school operates three study tracks: the standard kind, with 40 pupils studying a total of 35 hours per week; the Atid ("future") program, in which pupils in similarly sized classes study 41-43 hours weekly, with some subjects taught to small groups; and the science leadership project, in which 25 pupils receive 45 weekly hours of education. Each framework charges parents a different sum: NIS 1,200 for the regular class over the course of the year; NIS 2,800 for Atid; and NIS 6,000 for the science leadership project which began this year.

Admission to the new program is based on personal interviews, whose criteria are unclear. When pupils in the regular track were asked about differences between them and those in the special classes, many of them answered, "They are smart and we are stupid."

This behind-the-scenes support for different educational tracks at Yad Giora appears to contradict the Education Ministry's official policy, which forbids funding extra school hours by charging fees to parents, and also forbids entrance exams or interviews.

Furthermore, it raises questions about public statements by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Shoshani that they seek to strengthen public education.

As far as is known, the ministry did not authorize the collection of payments for the special classes, but it has also not taken any steps in the matter. In a survey of 540 schools two years ago, it was found that 70 percent charged fees that exceeded the permissible limit.

When the findings were published a few weeks ago, Shoshani committed himself to enforcing the law, and said that he would summon principals of schools that charge excessive fees to district offices.

The Education Ministry has refused to answer questions about Yad Giora or about the general subject of extra fees for extra school hours it was approached by Haaretz in the middle of last week. Both Sa'ar and Shoshani also turned down requests to be interviewed individually on the topic.

Social gaps

A few days before the opening of the school year, Sa'ar, declaring his commitment to public education, in an interview with Haaretz, expressed his concern that, "In the not-too-distant future, everyone who can afford to will choose a school outside the public system, and thus widen existing social gaps."

He added that, "obviously these trends take place among higher social-economic groups."

According to a source in the ministry, Shoshani's support for Yad Giora does not come as a surprise. "According to his thinking, this is exactly the way to improve the school system, just as special schools for sciences and the arts have done for Tel Aviv," he said.

Another source added that, "In contradiction to public statements, separate frameworks for high-achievement pupils, who 'just happen' to come from well-off social sectors, enjoy the ministry's support."

"Fees cannot be the criterion for entrance into special school programs," says Rabbi Shai Piron, director of the Hakol Hinuch (the Movement for the Advancement of Education in Israel) movement. "Charging fees creates a private school system inside the public one," he said. According to Prof. Yossi Yonah, of Ben-Gurion University, "It is easy for the public to be shocked by the events in Petah Tikvah," where Ethiopian pupils were refused admission to private religious schools in that city at the beginning of the school year, "but it accepts selective tracks inside regular public schools. Sa'ar and Shoshani protested loudly only two weeks ago against the barring of Ethiopians, but this is hypocritical. The policy they are advancing, like the publication of percentages of high school bagrut [matriculation] certificates and an increase in competition between schools, only encourages such phenomena."

In reply to the above, the Education Ministry would say only that "the admission of students who meet the requirements of special courses or magnet schools should not be dependent on payment of fees."