Church Schools Are Caught in a Crossfire of Israel's Fight Against Elitism

Their month-long strike came after the government cut funding in a battle against private schools.

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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A protest by students and teachers of Israel's Christian Schools. One sign reads: 'Fact: 87% of high-tech people graduated from our schools'.Credit: Emil Salman
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

The 47 Christian schools in Israel are very proud of their history. The first of these schools was established by the Vatican over 100 years ago, well before the founding of the State of Israel and the Israeli Education Ministry. Over the years they have fostered a tradition of excellence. Between 90% and 95% of their students earn a full matriculation certificate, the highest in Israel.

Their graduates are among the elite of Arab society in Israel, and contrary to what many assume only 60% of the 33,000 students in the church schools are Christian; the rest are Muslim. The Christian schools may be proud of their Christian curriculum, but they are even prouder of their academic stature.

Last month, all the country’s church schools went on strike, delaying the opening of the school year nearly a month. Despite the fact that tens of thousands of pupils from the elite of their community were at home instead of in school, the strike caused few ripples in wider Israeli society. It is an indication of just how indifferent Jewish Israelis are to what is happening within the Arab community and the budgetary discriminiation they suffer.

In this case the Christians are in good company: Many exclusive Jewish schools also contend with budgetary discrimination as well.

It is very difficult to understand the roots of the money problems affecting these schools for the simple reason that there are no data. The Education Ministry admits that until the recent strike, it did not have figures for the church schools, because it has never conducted an audit of them.

In the name of honoring Vatican control and because they receive funds from the church the government has avoided interfering in what goes on inside the Christian schools. This is an odd approach, given their enormous success within the Arab community.

Nachum Blass, who has conducted research into the Israeli education system as well as serving in a number of senior positions in the system, says church schools have been attracting an increasingly large segment of the Arab populaton, growing from 12% to 20% of Arab students in a decade.

These students come primarily from more affluent homes, posing a real threat to the state schools in the Arab community. But the ministry has not been bothered by this as long as it was confined to the Arab community.

Waking up late

It was only when senior officials began to notice a similar trend in Jewish schools that the ministry woke up to the problem. Outstanding students have begun to migrate from Jewish state schools to the growing number of exclusive secular schools, including democratic, open and anthroposophic instutitons. The ministry aimed to strengthen the state school system by restricting the “recognized but unofficial” schools — a category that includes the Christian schools, exclusive non-religious Jewish schools and the ultra-Orthodox school systems. That group includes such well connected and top schools as the Hebrew Reali High School in Haifa and the “leadership” program at the Levi Eshkol school at Hakfar Hayarok in Ramat Hasharon.

Along the way, the Christian schools have been drawn into the battle, even though the ministry did not set out to target them. Nevertheless, under former education minister, Shay Piron, the ministry slashed funding for unofficial schools.

First, the ministry cut the regular, annual budgetary basis of their funding, which amounts to 75% of the standard “instructional hours” allocation to state schools.

The ministry also reduced what is included in the “funding basket” from which it then allocates the 75%. It removed special instructional hours (for example, those allocated for a long school day, reducing class sizes in first and second grades and additional classroom hours for students with special needs). As a result, students in recognized but unofficial schools receive only 35% to 40% of the funding of those in regular state schools, compared to the 75% they are theoretically supposed to receive.

To make up the difference, unofficial schools frequently charge hefty tuition fees — until the ministry intervened a year ago and set a ceiling. In addition, the ministry started examining in great detail whether unofficial schools were meeting the educational and financial criteria to which they are bound. One of these criteria is a ban on selectively acceptance of students.

The crisis of the Christian schools stems from many things, but in particular the funding cuts they suffered after they were found choosing new students selectively. This combination of factors has led to the budgetary crisis for unofficial schools, which has already reached the High Court of Justice. The Reali High School has petitioned the High Court against the restrictions on payments by parents, claiming that without such increased payments the school will cease to exist.

The case ended in a shadowy compromise. Meanwhile, the Education Ministry has adopted the questionable practice of cutting parental payments on an individual basis for each unofficial school. A special committee for exceptions in the ministry now approves the payment schedule for each schoo without any clear or transparent criteria, and in an unequal fashion.

The Christian schools have not reached this committee yet.

Meanwhile, the financial crisis in the church schools seems to have uncovered even more complicated managerial problems.

First, it has exposed the lack of transparency — and the amazing fact that for 67 years they have been subject to no budgetary supervision whatsoever by the government. The schools are now refusing to allow the Education Ministry to conduct any oversight or audit.

Second, the crisis revealed the lack of clarity about exactly how muchparents pay, where it goes, and whether this amount is greater than the legal maximum allowed.

Evidence of waste

Third, the ministry has uncovered evidence of wasteful management in Christian schools, for example, nepotism, salaries of 60,000 to 80,000 shekels ($15,300 to $20,400)a month for principals and high overhead costs at the expense of classroom teaching hours and teachers’ salaries. This is where the negotiations with the Christian schools ran aground for almost a month.

The Education and Finance Ministries offered a one-time allocation of 50 million shekels, as well as a permanent solution to the budgetary problems, but only after an audit of the schools and proper oversight procedures are in place.

The Christian schools refused, saying it damaged the autonomy of the church and its property. They said they were also defending their right to their own school track, and questioned why the ministry’s fight against the Reali school had to come at their expense.

At the same time, the Education Ministry is sticking to its new ideology of strengthening the state school systems by taking aim at the unofficial schools. Any concessions to the Christian schools would force the state to grant similar concessions to other schools, like Reali.

In addition, the ministry is (justifiably) determined to impose the principles of transparency and oversight, It is extremely unlikely the government will agree to allocate new funding without these schools accepting such conditions first.

It was only this week that the Christian schools agreed to accept the government’s offer. They will receive a large, one-time payment, and the Education Ministry will then discuss future budgets,including the questions concerning management, transparency and supervision. The problem is not that the ministry has insisted on transparency, but that it has not insisted on extracting the same concessions from the ultra-Orthodox schools, too.