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The Education Ministry plans to widen schools' ability to operate the TALAN program of parent-funded enrichment courses, which critics call "a sure recipe for perpetuating gaps."

Until now TALAN courses were limited to three hours a week, but senior ministry officials are considering raising that limit to 12 hours, or one-third of the hours in a typical school week. The new policy would also allow schools to operate enrichment courses at the start of the school day rather than at the end, as is the current practice.

The new policy will be included in an upcoming directive by the ministry director-general. Ministry sources said this weekend that the change is intended to "keep 'strong' parents in the public system, so they don't leave for private schools."

However, Prof. Chaim Adler of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an Israel Prize recipient for education, said that if the new policy is implemented, it will "allow affluent groups to purchase education services instead of fighting for improved education for all. It's a sure recipe for perpetuating gaps."

Parents have been paying between NIS 327 and NIS 399 per week for TALAN, the Hebrew acronym for "extended studies program." The ministry's forthcoming directive does not designate new prices for the program.

TALAN courses generally offer enrichment in specific subjects such as arts or music, but in recent years, amid the ongoing shortage of hours devoted to "core subjects" during regular school hours, ever more enrichment hours have been designated for subjects like English, math and Hebrew.

A draft of the new directive obtained by Haaretz shows several substantive changes to the TALAN program. These include requiring the early agreement of local authorities, which will be required to aid (through scholarship or other means) families unable to pay for the enrichment courses.

"No one will accept a situation in which only some students enjoy TALAN, meaning the local councils will again have to contribute to funding education, a process that has only accelerated in recent years," said one local government official.

"In affluent communities, either parents or the local council itself would be very happy to have the option of expanding TALAN. Nonetheless, weaker local councils will struggle to fund it."

According to one mayor in the center of the country, "The Education Ministry has found a way to improve education: Placing the payment burden on us and on the parents. Not every community has a mechanism for determining which family is entitled to a scholarship, and no less important, not every community can find funds to do so. Funding the participation of students from weaker families will come at the expense of something else."

An Education Ministry official said that as part of the new policy, a support mechanism would be set up to "make sure that every student can participate in TALAN, even if his or her family is struggling to pay for it."

But according to Adler, should the changes be implemented, "We can only hope that the OECD does not accept Israel - not only because of its deep economic divisions but also because of its educational divisions, which are only growing wider."