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What's the common denominator between continuing dismal results on standardized performance tests and the apparent mass production of exemptions and lowered demands for pupils from North Tel Aviv who are classified as being learning disabled? In one word: money. To rephrase: the privatization of education.

Those who fall behind in reading comprehension, mathematics and English are children who belong to both categories: these are youngsters whose parents are unable to purchase books and learning videos, private teachers, enrichment activities and summer school; or they are children with learning problems whose parents are unable to send them to private experts who furnish them with exemptions from written exams.

There's no point in being naive about it: there have always been gaps in education, and there always will be. Parents provide the most important foundations for education; and what they provide is money, or the equivalent of money (free time, attention, intelligent discussion and exposure to experiences). When children reach schools, their most meaningful, formative educational years are almost behind them. Capable parents who value their children's education are willing to pay a pretty penny so that their little ones acquire skills useful to them in life.

These attitudes pad the bank accounts of private preschool teachers and of "prestigious" preschools (in North Tel Aviv and on kibbutzim, parents pay NIS 2,500 to NIS 3,500 a month for private preschool frameworks), and also of directors of various enrichment activities to which anxious small children, accompanied by ambitious parents, are taken two or three times a week, as well as diagnostic centers that test children's aptitudes. And, of course, children from families in the highest economic strata have more toys, books, and computer games. Such children are acquainted with a more successful, easier life than that of children from poor families on the geographic-social periphery.

And so six year olds with rich preschool backgrounds reach first-grade classrooms that are equipped with accoutrements that are entirely known in classrooms for children from low socio-economic backgrounds.

None of this is surprising news, of course. And yet the Education Ministry has the ability to reduce social gaps, if not to eradicate them altogether. Ministry policy was supposed to provide children from low socioeconomic backgrounds with the tools needed for good citizenship, and also, in the case of industrious and talented youngsters, for the climb to the top in various fields.

Instead, Israel's Education Ministry does the complete opposite. Over the past 10 years, state expenditure on education has dwindled, whereas investment in private education has grown; and so gaps between rich and poor have also widened. According to data compiled by the Central Bureau of Statistics, during 2003 parents from the wealthiest 10 percent of the nation's income groups spent 2.7 times more on education than did parents from middle-income brackets, and 10 times more than parents who belong to the poorest 10 percent group. This trend will continue in years to come, owing to the state of the economy, the government's distorted priorities, and (last but not least) the Education Ministry's obsessive habit of privatizing absolutely everything with the aim of reducing short-term deficits.

Rather than instituting serious reform, which would feature, among other things, the development of high-quality teachers and the improvement of learning conditions, the education system encourages private entrepreneurs whose public utility is dubious, to say the least. Writers of grandiose educational plans, diagnostic centers, educational counselors, and directors of all sorts of associations take center stage, and teachers and school principals are shoved to the side.

Parents have observed the changes for years. Those who have sufficient financial resources grasped long ago what they need to do: faced with an education system which has abandoned pupils, they protect their own children. In recent years, they have done so by resorting to the ugliest of means - attaining exemptions from exams, applying pressures and threats to teachers who did not give high grades, utilization of special connections and deal-making. Such parents do whatever it takes to ensure that their children don't suffer.

Such a child, who has been shielded from suffering by his parents, passes matriculation exams with an exemption or two, assumes (with the help of some string-pulling) a non-dangerous role in the Israel Defense Forces (or gets a service exemption), and then, in some cases, purchases an academic degree from some foreign university. The main thing is that the kid should get ahead quickly, and as easily as possible.

None of this would be important were it the case that other, less well-off parents were able to secure a decent education for their children, with the help of the education system. Since the system has forsaken them, the only thing that remains for them is to stare at the gap and despair.