In the wake of a ruling by the Tel Aviv District Court two weeks ago, the Education Ministry now finds itself at a crossroads. A private organization of parents, which has established a scientological school, Atid (which means "future"), in the youth village of Mikveh Yisrael, petitioned the court to overrule a closure order issued against the school by the ministry's director-general, Ronit Tirosh.
Judge Dr. Asher Grunis rejected Tirosh's decision, quoting the text of the court's landmark ruling: "Parents can raise and educate their children as they see fit. This is a fundamental, constitutional right, as well as a natural one, because it is inherent in the bond between parents and their children." The court added: "Parents know what is best for their own children."
Tirosh has termed the ruling a "blow to the very foundations of our educational system." In her opinion, the "court is tearing to pieces the [ministry's] policy of integration, because, in his ruling, the judge has determined that parents who have the economic means have the right to educate their children in selective contexts." Tirosh is primarily afraid of the privatization of the country's school system.
Over the past few years, the Education Ministry has been waging a rearguard battle against parents who organize for the purpose of establishing private schools. This battle is doomed from the start. Every private school that is denied an operating permit by the ministry will only generate two more organizations of parents determined to exercise their right to give their children an education that is compatible with their principles. In order to block the establishment of private schools, the ministry is considering appealing the district court ruling.
However, the ministry's approach is misguided. It must allow greater freedom in this area and must enable the multiculturalism that is already present in Israeli society to express itself in the school system as well. The Education Ministry already allows many parents to express their own particular educational viewpoint: The school systems of the modern Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities are autonomous. The time has now come to permit the secular state education system as well to become pluralistic.
The ministry's role is complex and goes far beyond merely the establishment of new schools or the fixing of standards for the number of weekly classroom hours in mathematics, English or Bible. When the ministry finally realizes that its primary function is to determine policy guidelines for all schools in Israel - that is, not just for secular state schools but also for Israel's state religious, ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Arab schools - perhaps it will feel less threatened by parents who organize themselves to create a private school.
The ministry is claiming that it is fighting the private schools in the name of equal opportunity; however, in point of fact, the ministry is overlooking the very disappointing products of its policies. There are wide gaps in terms of the quality of education and they express themselves, for example, in the percentage of high school students who end up with a matriculation certificate and in the extremely wide gap between the level of the average matriculation certificate awarded to a high school graduate in Ofakim and the level of the average matriculation certificate awarded to young people who have grown up in communities like Maccabim and Reut. There are also the serious problem of violence in Israel's schools.
Admittedly, a private school education is inaccessible to parents who cannot afford the tuition fees, as Tirosh has pointed out. However, she is ignoring the fact that the astronomical tuition fee charged by the country's private schools stems from the refusal by the ministry of which she is the chief administrator to provide these schools with the so-called basket of basic educational services to which every Israeli student is entitled by law.
The encouragement of private schools will not lead to the privatization of Israel's school system - which is what the Education Ministry's director-general fears - but will instead only serve to upgrade that system. Private schools offer a better education than public schools do, because the parents who set up these private schools not only have educational ideals - they also want to avoid the mistakes made by the schools that they themselves attended and which fell far below their expectations.
Private schools can become a catalyst for the entire education system. If the ministry were to decide to fund the establishment and operation of private schools, it could demand that organizations of parents determined to set up their own private school meet certain criteria in order to be issued an operating license for their school.
Furthermore, the ministry would then have the right to dictate to the private schools it funds what percentage of socio-economically disadvantaged students they must include in their student population so as to meet the goals of the ministry's integration policy. In fact, today's private schools are trying very hard to shed the image of elitism and are soliciting scholarships from private foundations for the express purpose of admitting students who, because of their parents' inadequate income, would otherwise be barred from attending a private school.
Competitiveness creates new challenges. When the Education Ministry decides to enable private schools to blossom, the public schools, where the level of teaching is mediocre, will display greater motivation to excel. A pluralistic school system, in which public and private schools coexist harmoniously, would enrich both Israeli society and the nation's students, who would then be free to choose the subjects they want - in addition to the core of compulsory subjects on the Education Ministry's curriculum.
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