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Half of the first-grades at the Zevulun Hammer school in Lod were drawing Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters last Thursday. The other half were stroking reptiles. Another class was doing shiatsu in the gym.

All these activities were led by instructors from the Karev Foundation (CRB Foundation), one of the largest private organizations operating within the education system.

These groups have gone far beyond providing mere enrichment courses. "These organizations are a necessary alternative, because the state has reneged on its commitment to manage the education system," says principal Ziona Kasif. Five different organizations function at her school.

Beit Berl College lists at least 500 public and private organizations that operate within the education system. The list does not include programs sponsored by ministries and public bodies such as the police, the IDF, the Jewish Agency and the Electric Corporation.

The Education Ministry cannot ward off the flood of NGOs and nonprofits. Nobody knows exactly how many of them exist. Eight months ago, Education Minister Yuli Tamir said the ministry would map all the programs financed by external bodies, but the process has stalled.

For lack of supervision, these hundreds of programs have never been examined or approved by the Education Ministry.

The NGO Registrar says that some 1,350 organizations dealing primarily with education registered between 2002 and 2006. Between 1996 and 2000, the number of educational NGOs doubled. Most are financed by private bodies, the government, local authorities and parents. Some have agendas.

According to the Beit Berl College, the NGOs do not necessarily help narrow the gaps in the education system. An analysis of a sample of 15 NGOs indicates that among the 300 elementary schools they operate in, 81 percent are in middle to upper-class areas.

The CRB Foundation, whose Web site says it acts to narrow the gaps in Israeli society, operates in 400 schools, only 40 percent of which serve poor communities.

Senior Education Ministry officials admit there is almost no supervision of the NGOs, including Lev Leviev's program to strengthen Judaism or Shari Arison's program Essence of Life.

The ministry is also not involved in setting priorities for the NGOs or in checking their success and failure rates.

"The ministry is not the education authority in an increasing number of communities; rather, the NGOs and private bodies are," a senior ministry source says.

Local Authorities education chief Avi Kaminsky says, "Regrettably, in some cases, the external bodies set the education agenda. The state benefits because these bodies' contribution softens the criticism of the education system."

The private bodies started expanding into schools at the beginning of the 1990s. "To my amazement, I learned that the ministry never regulated this matter," says Tamir. "Nobody ever checked who was authorized for what programs, and the school principles were not obliged to report, either."

Ministry officials believe the large majority of these organizations have no authorization to operate in schools. The large ones, however, like CRB and the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, work in collaboration with the Education Ministry.

Some 14 different organizations operate in Lod's schools, giving lessons in mathematics, English and Hebrew as well as informal education. More than 8,000 students take part in these programs.

"I don't believe in using external bodies," says Kasif. "But I have no choice. It's the only way to bring some added value and color into the clipped, slashed study program."