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The government yesterday asked the National Labor Court for assistance in ending the teachers strike, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and Finance Minister Roni Bar-On said yesterday. "We have done all we could to bring the strike to an end. "We hope the court will extricate us from this dead end," Tamir said, speaking at a press conference at the Finance Ministry.

The request means the renewal of negotiations under the authority of the court. Secondary Schools Teachers Association head Ran Erez said that back-to-work orders, if they are given, "will not lead to an improvement in the education system. They will only depress the veteran teachers and lead to the resignation of thousands of young teachers."

The teachers strike today enters its 42nd day.

President Shimon Peres announced that he would mediate between the government and the teachers if asked. Various parent groups have begun circulating a petition calling on the president to intervene.

Tamir said the need for reform was great, among other reasons, in light of international achievement test results. The results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study for elementary-school children are to be released tomorrow afternoon. "We are not in a satisfactory place," Tamir said. In the previous study, in 2001, Israel's students came in in 23rd place out of 35 countries.

Tamir said that, in the wake of the strike, underprivileged students were getting jobs, and saying they don't intend to return to school. "That will be a fatal blow to the education system," she added.

Other government officials said that the court had two options. Either it can issue back-to-work orders to some teachers, for example those preparing students for matriculation exams, or it can closely supervise the negotiations.

Treasury officials said at the press conference that the immediate cost of promised salary increments is estimated at about NIS 1.5 billion; restoring about 100,000 classroom hours would cost about NIS 600 million; reducing class numbers to 35 children requires NIS 1.3 billion; and new classroom construction would cost NIS 500 million.

"We will not pay without a reform," Finance Minister Roni Bar-On said. He said that if the reform were not implemented, an 8.5-percent pay increment that is on the table would go toward the reduction of numbers of students per class and restoration of hours.

"Every essential issue was pushed aside, Tamir said. "We are being dragged into a strike that is not about pedagogy but about the distribution of pay increments," she added.