Graduates and dropouts
Can the education budget be cut? Absolutely. It is possible and necessary for it to become more efficient, since it is convoluted and petrified, particularly at the supervisory level. But a smart, professional reform is needed for that.
How ironic it was a week ago, on the same day that a report on the status of children in the country was handed in - including a proposed bill for equality in education and the quality of education - was handed in, Education Minister Limor Livnat was shocked to discover what savage cuts had landed on her ministry in a hasty pre-dawn vote.
It is no less ironic that Livnat, one of the knights of the free market, fought against the cut on the grounds that there are some issues that are not supposed to be subject to free market competition, and that every child deserves equal opportunity. Education, she said, making sure to quote famous economists, is the most important infrastructure for growth.
Of course one can dismiss the Livnat campaign against Netanyahu as yet another political arm wrestling match. One can also ask if she doesn't see any connection between funding religious councils and settlements and the damage being done to the educational system. But the campaign, run by perhaps the only politician in the entire inflated cabinet with a doctrine and a focused world view, is not merely Livnat's personal campaign but a principled one.
Can the education budget be cut? Absolutely. It is possible and necessary for it to become more efficient, since it is convoluted and petrified, particularly at the supervisory level. But a smart, professional reform is needed for that. In the wake of the poor results on the international achievement tests, and the clam that Israel's spending on education is proportionately one of the highest levels in the world, Livnat set up a committee to plan a reform, headed by Shlomo Dovrat, who comes from the high-tech world. The solution to the poor results, she claims, will come from structural change, not from cutting expenditures.
The ministry budget is NIS 24.5 billion, of which 91 percent is for salaries. So what can be immediately cut from the remaining 9 percent, which is some NIS 3.7 billion? But that part of the budget is only partially available for cuts. It includes most of the informal ministry activity.
Another NIS 600 million pays for busing, with the ministry serving as a conduit between the treasury and the local authorities. Who will bear that burden? The local authorities and the parents. Who will get to take buses? The children of the rich. Who will walk or drop out? The children of the poor.
The other 91 percent is tied to collective wage agreements with the teachers unions. There are 130,000 teachers in the system, each working an average 24 hours a week. When a teacher is fired, they take their 24 hours with them, meaning 24 hours less for a system at the virtual price of efficiency. If thousands of teachers are fired, every child will lose at least one weekly hour, beyond the cut already implemented this year.
And what will be gained if 5,000 teachers and kindergarten teachers are fired? The ministry says NIS 280 million, but the treasury says NIS 600 million. According to the ministry calculations, 15,000 teachers and another 6,000 kindergarten teachers would have to be fired to save NIS 600 million. That's a scandalous figure and the results would be absurd - and in any case the results would only show up in the next budget book.
Fewer teachers can teach more hours, says the treasury. Livnat actually supports that classically capitalistic approach - France and Britain have rejected it. But she claims that to build a new school system that attracts good teachers, a decent differential wage structure needs to be created with career paths dictated by achievement, not by cutting expenditures.
With that approach, which deserves to be thoroughly examined, the ministry would reorganize into a lean, innovative structure. But to achieve that, the ministry has to reach an agreement with the teachers' associations. If no agreement is forthcoming, Livnat wants to change the law. Netanyahu also knows that none of this can be done by 2004.
Therefore, if there are panicky cutbacks now, which teachers will be fired? The burned out old-timers, who will get their full pension - and if they end up unemployed they will also get guaranteed income allowances. For a quick and easy saving, maybe the untenured young teachers should go? But those are the precisely the teachers the ministry wants integrated into the reformed structure.
But what if the ministry is indeed cut, rapidly and stupidly? The children who have money will get their makeup classes. Those who don't will drop out. In the last two years, the dropout rate has been narrowed to 5.1 percent and there has been a rise in matriculation exam successes.
The gaps will grow deeper, the achievements will decline, and within a few years, even more youths will become burdens on society. Livnat claims that it's simple economics. Presumably, she understands that it's also a social and political time bomb.
Livnat's position reflects the "old" Likud position, committed to a statist ethic, deriving its strength from society. Netanyahu circumvented that Likud approach from the right with a neo-liberal gallop down a winding path that is not committed to anything.
If Livnat and her friends allow him to market immediate results, the price could be the destruction of the Likud's central political base. And that's only one part of the more dangerous destruction of society at large.