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"The government has put education at the bottom of its list of priorities," exclaimed Education Minister Limor Livnat angrily when she left the Knesset session that approved the 2002 budget this week.

Livnat was referring to the NIS 600 million cut in her ministry's budget. Immediately after the session she declared that 3,000 teachers would have to be laid off and classroom hours would have to be cut, meaning that students would be dismissed at 11:45 A.M. every day instead of at 1:30 P.M. These statements show that she knows "Lahat's Law" well.

According to this law, the way to prevent a budget cut is to apply it to the most sensitive and painful area. The former mayor of Tel Aviv, Shlomo (Chich) Lahat, honed this method to an art form, which is why the maneuver is named after him.

When it was deemed necessary to cut the municipal budget, Lahat cut out subsidized hot meals in senior citizens' homes. This resulted in an immediate public outcry and the budget cut was cancelled. Now Livnat is pulling exactly the same ploy. She is touching the most sensitive nerve - teacher layoffs and cuts in school hours - and is hoping thereby to arouse public opinion against the cuts, to recruit Knesset members to her cause and to spur the parents' and teachers' organizations into a campaign against Finance Minister Silvan Shalom and to make the Knesset Finance Committee decide against the cut.

Is the firing of teachers the only option? Is the education budget being handled efficiently? Is there no other way to save NIS 600 million in a budget of NIS 23 billion without cutting back hours of classroom instruction? Of course there is, and Livnat knows this very well, but it takes courage. She knows that every change, every act of streamlining, every reform - will be met head-on by the teachers' organizations and will turn her into "the enemy of education," so it's simply much easier and more populist to struggle against the budget cut.

At the last economics conference in Caesarea, Prof. Victor Lavi, who also serves as an adviser to the Education Ministry, said that Israel ranks among the highest in the world when it comes to national expenditures on education (9.8 percent of the gross domestic product), but from an achievement point of view, Israeli students are near the bottom. He therefore concluded that the education system must be streamlined and reformed and that many hundreds of millions of shekels could be saved in the education budget.

A joint study conducted by Prof. Haim Ben Shahar and Danny Ben David reached similar conclusions. They said that NIS 3.5 billion could be cut from the education budget without harming the level of education.

There are, for example, 850 supervisors in the education system, most of whom are superfluous, because their duties are identical to those of elementary and junior high school principals and their vice principals. The average annual cost of each supervisor is about NIS 200,000. Another example of fiscal inefficiency is the regional administrative system. The Education Ministry has seven regional offices around the country, each with an administration and dozens of workers. These were necessary in a period when there were no phones or fax machines. Today all the regions are superfluous.

Here's another one. The number of hours of instruction allocated to each high school class teacher is 58.5 hours per week, but the students receive only 36 hours of frontal classroom instruction. Where are the other 22.5 hours a week disappearing to? They are for "administration and education," "air" (when the teacher is doing something for the class but not with the class) and "space" (when, for example, a class of 40 students is divided into two groups, creating the need for an additional teacher).

These hours of non-classroom instruction cost the education system NIS 5 billion a year. This means that cutting back just 10 percent of these hours would solve the whole problem of the budget cut - without losing one hour of frontal instruction. Furthermore, every year a large number of teachers retire, and if Livnat were to decide not to hire new teachers for one year, the drop in salary expenses would cover a large portion of the budget cut.

But Livnat has her own agenda. Just recently she cancelled all the hours and seminars that had been designated for teaching democracy and peace (an indecent word around here) at junior high schools and redesignated them for "heritage studies," that are meant for teaching "Jewish values and Zionism." After all, Livnat has proven herself a Zionist and is in favor of the singing of the national anthem and the flying of the flag at all schools.

Perhaps it would be worth her while to check how often the flag is flown at the educational institutions run by Shas and United Torah Judaism. It does not bother the Education Ministry to set aside more and more funds for the ultra-Orthodox. True, they don't celebrate Independence Day and army service is taboo, but there are fewer students per class, more teachers and more hours of instruction than in the state education system. Just recently Deputy Education Minister Meshulam Nahari (Shas) said that the budget for schools run by Shas and UTJ has increased by 13.5 percent since Livnat took office and that she "makes them feel good."

In other words, there is money in the education budget. There is also room for streamlining and change. It's all just a matter of priorities and courage.