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Parents of elementary school children will soon be given a choice of several schools their children may attend, instead of being assigned a school close to their home.

The Education Ministry, which is planning to enact the changes in about 10 municipalities in time for the 2011-2012 school year, will also impose a ceiling on the fees schools will be allowed to charge parents and prohibit schools from choosing which students to admit.

The ministry plans to impose the changes in a four-year pilot program before it decides whether to expand it nationwide. Ministry officials said they think the school choice program will minimize the attraction of private schools.

"The new plan will provide a response to the temptations offered by the private schools," said an Education Ministry official. "Parents choose within the private-school system because they don't have faith in the regular system. If we don't succeed in restoring parents' confidence, tomorrow morning another 20 schools like Havruta will open. That's a surefire recipe for wider gaps [between the rich and the poor]."

Under the pilot program, each school registration zone must include at least two elementary schools from which parents may choose. However, the Education Ministry is hoping to offer a choice of between three and five schools, each with a different focus, such as science, art or sports.

Each registration area is responsible for accepting all the students who live there, though that responsibility does not fall on any particular school within the area.

The changes, which are due to be formally announced in the coming weeks, are coming to light shortly after a judicial panel forced the Education Ministry to approve the opening of Havruta, a new private high school near Netanya that focuses on youth leadership. The decision spurred Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar to declare in the Knesset in mid-November that private schools could end up destroying their public counterparts.

But it is not at all clear that the program will save the public schools or be appreciated by parents - or even that it is new.

In the mid-1990s, the Tel Aviv municipality began allowing the parents of middle school students to choose a school, in a program spearheaded by Shimshon Shoshani, who now serves as director general of the Education Ministry.

But the municipality got so many complaints from parents, who charged that their children were not actually getting placed into the schools they had chosen, that city hall decided last year to limit the program.

This year, children who live in Tel Aviv are assigned to a particular middle school based on its proximity to their homes. Only after they receive their assignment can they request to attend one of a limited number of other schools instead.

In addition to the problems that have beset the longstanding school choice program in Tel Aviv, one critic of the plan to implement it nationwide said it won't help the worst schools or the poorest children.

"Competition among schools can promote the strongest institutions, but it won't help the weak ones, which students will run away from," said Professor Emeritus Dan Inbar, a former director of Hebrew University's School of Education.

Inbar previously led a public committee that concluded that the quality of education at schools must be roughly equivalent before a school choice program is implemented. Otherwise, he said, families are being given a "false choice" between good and bad schools. For the most part, he added, it's the children from better-off families who go to the better schools because the poorer families tend not to seek other options.

The Education Ministry "needs to explicitly say how it will help the weak schools, not to assume that competition will improve them," Inbar said. "If such an investment is not made as a prerequisite for opening the registration zones, there is a risk that the process will cause a hidden privatization of the education system."