Students
Pardes Hanna students in 2006. Photo by Archive / Itzik Ben Malki
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Dozens of parents around the country have organized to oppose reducing classroom hours for secular subjects and increasing religious studies in state religious schools.

The parents complain that the Education Ministry's religious education department has limited the autonomy of some school principals by requiring them to devote 40 percent of class time to religious studies, and also has encouraged a more ultra-Orthodox orientation in the state religious schools.

Ministry directives issued this summer include details regarding allocation of instruction time and also state that any deviation from the requirements must receive the approval of the ministry official supervising the school.

The parents say this eliminates the flexibility that the principals had to decide these matters on their own. For its part, however, the ministry's religious education department said the new directives are no different in practice from prior instructions to the schools.

Following the parents' complaints, the religious school education department has reinstated some of the autonomy the principals had, giving the principals authority to set content for about 20 percent of class time.

Ariela, a member of a concerned parents' group in the center of the country that opposes curtailing the principals' autonomy, said that until this summer, whether similar directives were in place or not, there was no explicit directive on mandatory number of hours for certain subjects, leaving principals substantial flexibility in allocation of classroom hours. School supervisors only gave verbal instructions, she said, adding that new instructions require an additional four hours a week of religious instruction in first grade. She said when she checked at two other state religious schools, she found they would be reducing the number of hours of instruction in math beginning in the fall.

In fourth grade, English instruction is to be reduced from four hours to three a week, and science from three to two hours.

"The religious education department in recent years has been developing an agenda to turn state religious schools ultra-Orthodox," said Ze'ev Shenkman of Ramat Hasharon, a dentist who also performs ritual circumcisions and has two children in a state religious school in the Tel Aviv suburb. "This is reflected," he added, "in requiring female teachers and principals to cover their heads and wear longer sleeves. It's reflected in allowing teachers without an education background into the schools and the increased separation of boys and girls. Now, most recently, like thieves in the night, it has been learned, secular studies are being cut. I am Orthodox and would not oppose additional religious study, but not at the expense of the number of hours of general study. Up to now, there was a balance that allowed the national religious public to raise people who benefited society, the army, academia, and can support themselves in dignity through their own labor."

"What the religious education department did," Shenkman said, "is to let us choose between two options - either paying thousands of shekels per child for private teachers who will fill in what is lacking or allowing [our children] in a narrow, limited world."