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Education Ministry Director General Shimshon Shoshani is to hold a hearing today for the principals of three private religious schools in Petah Tikva that have refused the state's demand that they enroll students of Ethiopian descent.

Last night, the principals of the schools - Darkei Noam, Lamerhav and Da'at Mevinim - informed the Education Ministry that they have no intention of attending the hearing, although they added that "they are continuing discussions on the matter and a final decision is expected today." A committee appointed by the Education Ministry that delivered its conclusions late last year found that the three schools have a selective admissions policy.

"Three non-state religious schools, because they consider themselves free of obligation to the state, are selective in their admissions, whether based on the religious conduct of the parents and the family, or pure elitism," the Bas Committee wrote in its report.

Senior officials at the schools refused a Haaretz request for an interview.

According to figures familiar with the history of religious education in Petah Tikva, the common denominator behind the establishment of the schools was the wish of financially comfortable parents to separate their children from those of recent immigrants or from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Usually the formal justification for setting up such schools has been the wish for more religious education for their children.

The Bas Committee concluded that refusing admission to children of Ethiopian origin based on the ostensibly insufficient level of religious observance of their families constituted discrimination.

Darkei Noam was established in the 1980s, according to one source by parents who pulled their children out of Yavne, a state religious school in the city, because of the admission to the school of children of Sephardi origin.

"No one used the term 'racism'," the sources says, "but it was obvious that the well-to-do Ashkenazi parents didn't want their children studying in the same school with children who were different from them. Officially they said they wanted to give their children a more 'religious' education."

Of a total enrollment last year of 672 in grades 1-6 at Darkei Noam, 13 children were of Ethiopian origin; that number is expected to rise to 34 this year.

One of the founders of Darkei Noam, Rabbi Avraham Garnewich, left the school in the late 1990s and established Lamerhav. The new school is the strictest of the three, from a religious point of view. The Education Ministry provides 75 percent of the school's budget, with additional funding coming from the municipality.

Two years ago the daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Lamerhav had a separate class with four students from Ethiopia, who had different recess periods than the other students and were bussed home in separate vehicles.

This year the school is slated to admit nine children of Ethiopian descent, for a total of 14 in a student body of 478.

Da'at Mevinim was established in 1998 for reasons that one source described as "elitist-ethnic." According to the source, "Financially secure families who had kept their children in state-religious schools saw the flight from these schools and decided to follow suit. They are less interested in the religious issue than in the families' socioeconomic standing." According to the municipality, this year Da'at Mevinim will have 20 students of Ethiopian origin.