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The Knesset yesterday passed the first reading of a bill allowing ultra-Orthodox high schools to receive state funding even without adopting the Education Ministry's core curriculum, in contravention of a High Court of Justice ruling.

Twenty-two MKs, most of them from ultra-Orthodox parties, voted in favor of the bill, which was submitted by MKs Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) and Yaakov Margi (Shas).

The bill also gives the ultra-Orthodox education system extensive freedom from Education Ministry supervision and seeks to set down in law that the schools will receive 60 percent of the funding provided to students in state schools. It applies to students in grades 9-12 who attend ultra-Orthodox educational institutions or schools that belong to any other population group with unique cultural attriutes, as determined by the education minister.

The ultra-Orthodox MKs advanced the legislation in the wake of a High Court petition submitted by the Secondary School Teachers Association and the Israel Religious Action Center, the Israeli Reform movement's legal advocacy arm, in an effort to compel the Education Ministry to implement a 2004 High Court verdict stating that the government should stop funding schools that do not teach the core curriculum.

Religious Action Center associate director Rabbi Gilad Kariv called the bill "wanton and dangerous" and said allowing the ultra-Orthodox schools to refuse to teach the core curriculum ultimately perpetuates poverty among the ultra-Orthodox.

"The bill sentences tens of thousands of young people to a life of poverty, and perpetuates their hostility to democratic values," he said.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir appealed the decision by the ministerial committee for legislation to approve the bill, saying that specific funding per student or for a specific kind of educational institution should not be set in legislation.

"Providing an exemption from the demands of the law will lead to these schools having no active supervision by the state," Tamir said in the appeal, which she subsequently withdrew after talks with ultra-Orthodox MKs, including Shas chairman Eli Yishai.

Tamir and the MKs agreed that the bill's backers would hold a discussion about the level of state participation in the ultra-Orthodox schools and about coordinating with the Education Ministry regarding ministry supervision of the schools.

"The ultra-Orthodox didn't want the Supervision Law to apply to them, and now there will be a discussion of the matter," said Tamir.