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Once again the ultra-Orthodox have demonstrated that they are better than any other group at diagnosing their long-term interests and protecting them. Their demands in the field of education ensure that in the years to come, ultra-Orthodox education will retain a tremendous advantage over public education. Its students will have an extended school day, six days a week, 11 months a year, and they will study according to a specially tailored curriculum. Governmental funding won't shrink; teachers won't be fired. According to the agreement between the Likud and United Torah Judaism, NIS 150 million will be allocated for kindergartens, school transportation, teacher training, boarding schools, student insurance, Jewish culture and religious elementary schools, plus another NIS 140 million for the budget of advanced yeshivas and yeshivas for married men. Additionally, the special 15-percent cutback in kindergarten funds that was effected last February will be revoked.

The secular public watches in dismay. Its school system is getting battered. Despite the Education Ministry's valiant efforts, implementation of the Dovrat Commission's report on education reforms moves farther away, and its main recommendation - to allocate funds for preschool education - will be carried out only in ultra-Orthodox kindergartens.

While thousands of public school teachers worried about layoffs and cutbacks are protesting, teachers in ultra-Orthodox schools are unruffled. Their jobs are secure, and their terms of employment won't suffer: In any case their salaries are paid not just by the Education Ministry, but also out of the budget for supporting yeshiva boys.

As in the past, in the years to come some parents who cannot afford to pay for "public" education and seek an extended school day, free busing, meals and a shortened summer break for their children will once again turn to the ultra-Orthodox school system.

The ultra-Orthodox public's success in safeguarding, even strengthening, its school system underscores the failure of the secular public, which talks a lot about the primacy of education, but refuses to make it a top priority.

Secular education doesn't have a political party to look out for it. The best proof of that is the manner in which coalition negotiations were conducted throughout the ages. While the ultra-Orthodox and national-religious publics demand budgets and programs that focus on education, the secular public focuses on numerous and varied issues - just not on education. Issues like educating toward democratic and liberal values, loyalty to the state and its laws, bolstering preschool education and renewing the national meal program in schools have never been broached by the secular public as a condition for joining a government.

From the secular politician's standpoint, education can wait for disengagement, peace, the right economy, the moment a slot opens up on the list of military-political or socioeconomic priorities. Till then it is making do with paying lip service. It is either for or against the Dovrat Commission, it criticizes or praises the failures or achievements in education, but it has betrayed its educational duty and nobody is calling it to task for that.

By contrast, the ultra-Orthodox and religious politicians know that back at the political homestead, the rabbi is waiting and the rabbi knows the secret to the group's survival: education. That's why in his eyes the education issue takes precedence over everything else. And since the rabbi does not trust the state but only his own people, he fights for this priority with all his might and with the help of state and private funds. That's how the Jews survived in exile for thousands of years. That's how the ultra-Orthodox survive in their self-imposed exile within the State of Israel.

The rabbis know what educators have always known: Future control begins in kindergarten. The soldiers who are willing today to refuse orders because the rabbis instructed them to do so acquired that obligation at a tender age. Today the rabbis are cashing in their chips.

It's impossible not to be envious of the ultra-Orthodox and national-religious public, which time and again is smart enough to consider the long run. The secular public has no one to blame but itself. The problem is not the priorities of the ultra-Orthodox public, but the priorities of those who could have demanded more, but from the start sacrificed the future for the sake of the here-and-now.

A secular movement needs to arise that will ensure the future of education. Otherwise, even if there is peace here, the secular Zionist state of which Herzl dreamed will not endure.