high school girls Tomer Appelbaum
High school girls studying for the psychometric exam in Jerusalem. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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In more than half of Israel's cities and towns, public schools run private programs that violate the principle of equal educational opportunities for all. This is the main finding of a recent survey conducted by education department heads at the Union of Local Authorities.

The survey found that these private programs require parents to pay relatively high fees and subject students to admissions exams. Most of these programs exist the public school system, which means that taxpayer money has been used to promote inequality in the education system.

The survey included a representative sampling of 67 municipalities, and its findings were scheduled to be presented yesterday at a conference in Jerusalem organized by the education department heads at the Union of Local Authorities. According to Avi Kaminsky, the head of the forum of education department directors, this trend is hindering integration in Israeli schools. "Under the guise of educational distinction, these schools conduct admissions exams that are not always legal and charge high fees that prevent the weaker segments of the population from attending them," he said.

He was referring to so-called magnet schools that specialize in specific areas study (such as nature, the arts, or science ) and to educational programs based on a unique pedagogic approach (for example, the democratic and anthroposophic schools ). But even ordinary public schools, it turns out, have begun to introduce special tracks, generally in an attempt to attract more affluent students.

According to the survey, magnet schools exist in about half of all Israel's cities and towns. At most of them, parents are charged relatively high fees, and the schools use entrance exams to vet students - a practice that is forbidden by the Education Ministry. In addition, in more than 50 percent of the municipalities, ordinary public schools run special private programs.

The upper-middle class, it turns out, are the main beneficiaries of these programs: Roughly 85 percent of the magnet schools are located in municipalities where the socio-economic level is defined by the Central Bureau of Statistics as medium-high. The findings also show that more than 70 percent of these schools are located in Jewish cities and towns, while another 27 percent are located in mixed Jewish and Arab municipalities. Only three percent exist in Arab municipalities.

In recent months, private education has come under attack from from Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who, among other things, has refused to grant a license to the Havruta private school, which charges around 35,000 shekels annually in tuition fees.

At the same time, as reported in Haaretz, the Education Ministry has ordered magnet schools in Tel Aviv to refrain from administering entrance exams to first graders. A final ruling on the matter is pending.

According to one of the authors of the survey, Yael Kafri, of the Tel Aviv University law faculty's community service clinic, the survey's findings indicate that that there is a need "to revisit some of the concepts used by the Education Ministry and the local authorities, which clearly distinguish between public and private education. It seems that the special programs are more common in the public education system than in the private sector. Presenting the private schools as the enemies of the public system distracts the discussion from the real problem, which is the privatization processes the public system is undergoing."

Kafri added that the findings also show that the public has little faith in the "ordinary" education system and that "the local authorities are in the midst of a conflict: on one hand, they are trying to maintain an equal opportunity education system, but on the other hand, they allow parents to acquire enhanced educational services, which increases inequality."