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The 2006-2007 school year was a bad one. One third of it was lost as a result of the sanctions taken by secondary-school teachers. They did not administer exams and the students celebrated. Without the threat of tests, the students didn't apply themselves and study. The teachers nonetheless promoted them all at the end of the year - without even distributing report cards.

This year, the situation is even worse. Instead of sanctions, there is a full-blown strike that is likely to last a while. But at the end of the year, the students will once again be promoted to the next grade. They won't learn much, their education will suffer - but who cares besides their parents?

Ran Erez, the chairman of the Secondary-School Teachers' Association, is preparing for a very prolonged strike. He adopted an extreme position in staff meetings: "We have decided to take off our gloves and fight with all our strength, to the point of burning down the building." He insists that the strike will continue until either Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or the teachers suffer a knockout.

One reason the strike will be prolonged is that the government is simply unwilling to give in. The truth is that it cannot do so. The government recently signed a reform agreement with Yossi Wasserman, chairman of the teachers' union that represents the elementary-school teachers. If Erez receives one red cent more than Wasserman, a major strike will immediately begin in the elementary schools. But Erez wants to get more to prove to his public that he is a stronger and more successful leader than Wasserman.

The government has another problem. It cannot give Erez what he is demanding - a salary increase of 15 percent - without any additional frontal teaching hours, since such an agreement would also place Ofer Eini, the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, in an impossible position. He recently signed an agreement for a salary boost of 5 percent for all the workers in the country. How would he look if Erez got three times as much? And there is another reason: university lecturers. They are threatening not to begin the academic year unless they also receive a salary increase of 15 percent. Therefore, paying Erez translates to a long strike in the universities as well.

This major catch is a result of a strategic mistake Erez made last year, when he severed the historical partnership with the teachers' union. He did not understand that only a joint struggle would yield results. After all, Wasserman controls the sensitive part of the system, the 80,000 teachers who are responsible for kindergartens, first and second grades and special-education classes. That is the soft underbelly of the system. Only when these young children are off from school is the strike really painful. They cannot be left alone at home. In the event of a strike, the parents cannot go to work and they cry out until the politicians give in.

On the other hand, when only the high-schools strike, the teenagers go to the beach, and if it is too cold they simply sleep until noon. The parents can continue working, the economic pressure is slight, and the strike is much easier on the public and the government.

What further increases the pressure on Erez is the fact that the high-school teachers see how the reform agreement signed by Wasserman significantly improves the salaries of the elementary-school teachers. The basic salary of a beginning teacher has increased by 32 percent, from about NIS 4,000 to NIS 5,300 a month. The rest of the teachers will receive an average increase of 26 percent. If we add to that the overall salary increase in the country (5 percent) and the "erosion agreement" for fatigue on the job (6 percent), an average elementary-school teacher will receive a salary increment of about 40 percent, whereas the high-school teachers are receiving nothing. For now.

The high-school teachers deserve a salary increase. Their salary is too low, considering the importance of their work. But Erez must understand that he cannot receive more than Wasserman. Therefore another kind of reform must be formulated for him: a higher salary in return for more frontal teaching hours, without non-teaching hours and other maneuvers. After all, it is unacceptable for the job of a high school teacher to be based on only 19 teaching hours per week, when each hour is actually 50 minutes. That's too little.

In other words, there is a solution to the problem. There is even money earmarked for it in the 2008 budget. But to get it, the teachers need another leader: better, smarter, more honest. Erez does not fit the bill. He is an old-fashioned leader, militant in words but very weak in accomplishments. The teachers deserve a more dignified leader who will extricate them and us from this mess.