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Overcrowding in classrooms is perhaps the most volatile issue under negotiation between the government and Secondary School Teachers Association, on strike for a 36th day. The gaps between the parties on the teachers other demands - higher pay for more work and restoration of instruction hours cut in recent years - remain substantial, but at least there is agreement with regard to them. Not so when it comes to reducing class size.

The teachers want to lower the maximum size from 40 to 30 pupils, in a gradual process spread over five or six years, but the Finance Ministry is objecting, for now, claiming that teachers are trying to dictate governmental priorities. The Education Ministry favors investing the funds in restoring study hours, in the belief that this would bring about significant change more rapidly.

Israel placed fourth on the list of most crowded classrooms in the latest international report on education by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, averaging 31.7 pupils per junior-high class, compared to 23.8 pupils overall. (The figures for elementary schools are 26.6 pupils in Israel versus 21.7 in all OECD-member states.)

But these data, unflattering in themselves, conceal broad discrepancies between various sectors. Haaretz has found that junior-high schools have the highest rate of overcrowding, with 36 or more pupils per class, followed at a large margin by high schools, then elementary schools.

According to Education Ministry figures for the current school year, nearly 40 percent of junior-high classes in Israel have between 36 and 45 pupils, compared to 21 percent of high-school classes and 18.5 percent of elementary-school classes.

Further analysis sharpens the differences between social groups: The highest rate of overcrowding is in Arab junior-high schools (52.9 percent), followed by secular Jewish schools (41.4 percent), and finally religious Jewish schools (9.6 percent). By comparison, the rate of elementary-school classrooms with between 10 and 20 pupils is 32.6 percent at ultra-Orthodox schools, 21.6 percent at state-religious schools, 4.3 percent in secular schools and 1.9 percent in Arab schools.

In high schools, where most of the striking teachers work, 20.6 percent of classes have 10-20 pupils (thanks to the high percentage of small classes in state-religious and ultra-Orthodox schools); 21 percent have 21-30 pupils; 38.6 percent have 31-35 pupils; and 19.8 percent have 36-45 pupils.

A recent review by the Education Ministry estimates the cost of reducing class size from 40 to 35 students at over NIS 3 billion.

"It will not be possible to grant all of the SSTA's demands," an Education Ministry official said. "It would be better to focus on substantial improvement in one area than on making small changes in several - which would have a lesser effect."

One ministry official observed that the widespread push over the past decade to reduce overcrowding in American schools has not yielded higher scores on international assessment tests. Furthermore, he added, shrinking classes would require building thousands of new classrooms, while overcrowding is greatest in Arab communities, which already have a severe shortage of available public space.

The SSTA has vowed not to compromise on any of its demands - reforming secondary education, restoring 110,000 instruction hours, and capping class size at 30 pupils. Their struggle, teachers insist, is also over their ability to treat each pupil personally.

"During a lesson I don't have time to do everything I want to do - put in an encouraging word, devote personal attention and allow everyone to have a say," Tzofit Inbar, a teacher at Jerusalem's Boyar High School says. "Significant interaction with pupils is a direct function of their number in the classroom. I have 40 kids in my class. No teacher, not even the finest, can pay attention to everyone."