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During yesterday's debate on an expected NIS 750 million reduction in the Education Ministry's budget, it was decided that before the cabinet votes on the cut next week, the Knesset Education Committee will meet to discuss the details and implications of the move.

In his first speech as education minister before the Knesset plenum yesterday, Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) fought to gain his fellow lawmakers' support against the slashing of his ministry's budget. "We are very close to the bottom. International tests show that Jordan's school children have passed us, and we are a little ahead of Syria and Tunisia, although more recent statistics might show that they have also surpassed us. But at least we're still ahead of Lebanon," Sa'ar told the Knesset.

Still, Sa'ar stopped short of criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "I believe he will stand by me and I know he understands the situation the school system is in. I expect him to back he," Sa'ar said.

Education Committee chairman Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) said: "Under the present circumstances the education system is in danger. The budget cut will seriously sabotage Israel's strength."

Earlier, MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) said that the slashing of the education budget will harm mainly the poorer segments of society. "My two boys, one in seventh grade and one in twelfth grade, will not be hurt because with my salary as a Knesset member I can pay for private lessons if needed. Those with low salaries, who can't allow themselves more outlay for education, will be hurt," Yachimovich said.

The Education Ministry budget was cropped between 2001 and 2009 by approximately NIS 4.8 billion, according to ministry figures released yesterday. Sources in the ministry said that this series of cuts had hit all areas of its activities: Some 250,000 teaching hours have been lost in elementary, junior and senior high schools, funding has been reduced for various educational programs by 50 percent or more, and about NIS 820 million has been slashed from the funds transfered to the local authorities for education.

Over the past nine years, funding to the ministry department providing services to poor students has been reduced by about 62 percent, and budgeting for youth programs by 57 percent. The budget of the department funding science and technology equipment has been trimmed by about 44 percent.

"We cannot absorb another cut," a senior ministry official said yesterday.

As many as 107,000 teaching hours - five percent of all classroom hours - could be slashed next year if the budget cut goes through, which would lead to the laying off of some 5,400 teachers. Senior ministry officials fighting the cuts yesterday cited the ministry's obligations to fund the "New Horizon" education reform and the postponement of the implementation of various ministry decisions.

The Finance Ministry responded to the Education Ministry's complaints by saying that the proposed steps were not cuts, but rather previous obligations the Education Ministry had yet to meet. "We regret the false representation that the Education Ministry is now attempting. We expect the ministry to meet all its obligations," a foreign ministry official said.

Among other things, the treasury says that the Education Ministry has still not paid its share of the reform.

An Education Ministry official said: "We are now fighting the battle of the previous education minister, Yuli Tamir, to allow the education system to breathe. And that is before considering the across-the-board cuts to all ministries, and certainly not talking about money needed for essential activities." Another official added: "In the end the matter will be decided by Prime Minister Netanyahu. He is the real finance minister."

If the budget cut does go through, the education ministry will have to decide between slashing classroom hours, decreasing funding to local authorities or reducing the number of schools participating in the reform. In support of the latter solution, one official said it would be illogical to cut classroom hours throughout the education system in order to pay for the teaching of smaller groups envisioned under the reform.