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The Education Ministry, the Petah Tikva municipality and the three private religious schools that have refused to take in Ethiopian students have reached an agreement just 12 hours before the beginning of the school year.

According to the deal, 48 of the 110 students in question will begin studying at the three private schools without undergoing any vetting. Other students, however, will be allocated to schools not sponsored by the state, rather than to national-religious schools, which have so far absorbed most of the Ethiopian students. After the agreement was reached, the parents committee of the state and national-religious schools canceled the local strike scheduled for Tuesday.

The agreement was hammered out in the afternoon by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, his director general Shimshon Shoshani and Petah Tikva Mayor Yitzhak Ohayon. In the deal, the three private schools - Lamerhav, Daat Mevinim and Darkei Noam - will take in 48 students: 30 of them already live in Petah Tikva and 18 are due to arrive in the coming weeks. The other 62 students will be sent to national-religious and fully-private ultra-Orthodox schools.

According to the agreement, the students will be admitted to the schools based on lists of names prepared by the Petah Tikva municipality, without any vetting. The deal also stipulates that a joint team of Education Ministry and municipal officials will be set up to examine the policy of integrating newly immigrated Ethiopian students.

Sa'ar said Monday that the "agreement we achieved reflects the principles we have been stating on the scope of student absorption in the three schools. This is a move toward a more equal dispersal of newly immigrated students across the schools, and their allocation according to lists of names rather than through a vetting process. We will be monitoring the situation to ensure that the agreement is carried out on the ground.

"This is the first step in a long process of settling the great debt we owe to the recently immigrated Ethiopian students."

Another official who took an active part in negotiating a solution was Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. Amar had been a vocal opponent of an earlier compromise proposal, under which the Ethiopian students who were rejected by religious schools would be placed in secular schools.

"A person who needs to be converted has to study, to accept the burden of the mitzvoth, and if he is studying in a place not adhering to the Torah, this runs against the conversion process. This is why we could not let them go to non-religious schools," Amar told Israel Radio. "We are investing a great deal of effort to force all religious and ultra-Orthodox schools to take them in."

Amar said that while visiting another rabbi, Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, Yosef told him that "forceful actions must be taken, and he told the Shas ministers to work on it as well .... We will all act to prevent the doors closing on those children. I've always been saying that yeshivas, too, should take them in."

Sources at the ministry told Haaretz that the decision Monday to suspend all budgets to the three private schools has not yet been canceled because such a move was conditioned on a complete carrying out of the agreement. "If we see that the students are admitted without vetting and according to the numbers we agreed on, the budgets will be brought back," one source said. Municipality sources said the suspension order was likely to be canceled within days.

Monday's agreement represents a key change in the private schools' position. The schools gradually moved from refusing to take up any of the students to taking up first-grade students and sending the rest to separate classes. This offer was rejected by the ministry, which said the classes would be "ghetto-like." The schools later agreed to take in 30 students, after a vetting process, and finally to the deal spelled out Monday.

"The schools accepted 100 percent of our demands," a senior Education Ministry source told Haaretz.

"This is a huge breakthrough in the private schools. Just weeks ago no one would have thought such a result was possible. All the private education taboos - the number of students, their division between state and private schools and the lack of vetting - have been shattered."

The three schools said they were very satisfied with the agreement. Daat Mevinim said in a statement that the agreement "represented faithfully the educational and national path that we have maintained ever since the founding of the school. We reject the smear campaign launched by certain interests on the back of the immigrant population."

Darkei Noam said that "we see in the absorption of the students an important Zionist act, and we will take them in with love and joy." Lamerhav said that "we have always admitted Ethiopian immigrants and will continue to do so with great love. However, we will also insist to admit them in the manner best for them, rather than courting certain populist needs."

Israel school year kicks off

Meanwhile, Israel's school year will open on time Tuesday with only a few local strikes. According to the Education Ministry, 385,000 children will attend preschool and kindergartens, and 1.48 million will attend elementary, secondary and high schools throughout the country. There will be 1,100 schools, with 57,000 classes and 121,000 education staff.

According to the annual report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, in the last decade, the number of Arab school students grew by 10 percent, the number of students in ultra-Orthodox schools jumped 51 percent, and the number of National Religious students increased 8 percent. The number of students in state schools shrank 3 percent.

The report, based on Education Ministry data, said that in 2000, 39 percent of Israeli school students attended Arab or ultra-Orthodox schools. That number is now 48 percent.

"The state must focus on the curriculums for the students that will soon be the majority," said the Taub Center's director, Prof. Dan Ben-David. "Rated against 25 countries participating in the OECD exams, the average achievement by the non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish population was at the bottom of the scale, while Israeli Arab students did even worse."