For the past few weeks, a cloud of uncertainty has been hanging over Jerusalem's Hebrew University High School (known in Hebrew as Leyada), which is renowned for having produced graduates who went on to become judges, lawmakers, ministers, business leaders and the like.
The school's board of directors convened this week to discuss a pressing dilemma: Should the school continue to operate in its present form - as a prestigious and elitist institution that requires would-be students to undergo an arduous series of tests before being accepted to study there - and thus become a private school funded primarily by the parents; or should it take on the status of a public school and forgo the selection process and its elitist character?
Based on initial assessments, if the high school goes private, parents will have to pay some NIS 12,000-15,000 a year to send their children there - more than a year's tuition at a university. "Some of the parents of students at Leyada today could certainly afford it," says Avraham Snapiri, an economist and a member of the school's parents committee.
Leyada's principal, Dr. Gilad Amir, says no special plans have been made for the coming school year, but he notes there is a distinct sense of concern among teachers, students and parents.
Other prestigious schools around the country - Reali in Haifa, Teva in Tel Aviv and the Democratic schools - are facing the same dilemma.
The individual responsible for the complex dilemma facing Leyada is none other than a graduate of the school, Shlomo Dovrat, whose commission's report on reforms in the educational system was approved recently by the government.
A chapter of the report, which is going to become a bill, deals with redefining all schools and dividing them into public and nonpublic institutions of learning. A school will be defined as a public educational institution if it meets nine criteria, including refraining from selecting students based on their academic achievements, refraining from exacting fees above a certain limit, the adoption of a core curriculum, subjectivity to the assessment indices of the Education Ministry, and meeting a minimum size.
A school that fails to meet these criteria will be defined as a nonpublic educational institution and receive reduced funding - 35-65 percent of its teachers' wages, and 85 percent of its basket of services.
The funding issue was the subject of heated discussions by the Dovrat Commission, with two opposing minority opinions appearing at the end of the panel's report.
On the one hand, the director of Hebrew University's Falk Institute for Economic Research in Israel, Prof. Victor Lavy, contends that schools that select students based on their academic achievements shouldn't receive a single cent in funding because they create "social division and polarization that prejudice equal opportunity in education for students from weaker sectors."
On the other hand, Prof. Ruth Klinov of Emek Yezreel College's economics faculty argues that the panel failed to consider the socially significant fact that the schools of excellence are the breeding grounds for the scientists and research scholars of the future.
Leyada's principal agrees with Klinov and would like to see her position prevail, which would certainly help solve the dilemma his school is facing. Perhaps not coincidentally, Klinov chaired Leyada's board of directors in the past.
In the coming two years, the public or nonpublic dilemma will be faced not only by veteran prestigious institutions such as Leyada and Reali, but by all the exclusive schools that have been established over the past 15 years or so to serve as an educational alternative for the children of the upper-middle class.
Many of these schools exact extra fees from parents, and can thereby run special programs and take on additional staff. If the schools stop charging the fees, the parents fear, they will lose their uniqueness.
Another option would be for parents to supplement the partial funding provided by the state, and there would certainly be communities that could afford to do so. According to Prof. Orit Ichilov of Tel Aviv University, "the Dovrat Commission will cause the establishment of private schools with public funding."
The Education Ministry has yet to set up an entity that will determine which of the country's schools will be defined as public and which will be defined as nonpublic. Ministry sources say that in the framework of the preparations for implementing the Dovrat panel's recommendations, a professional committee will be set up to determine the status of the exclusive schools in keeping with the principles of public education. The preparations are expected to last some two years.
"The ministry's policy is that all schools in the State of Israel will be part of the public education system," Education Ministry sources said.
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