Israel Still Putting Off Requiring ultra–Orthodox Schools to Teach Core Subjects

Education Ministry, Treasury differ on extent of sanctions against schools that don't comply

Haredi boys at a school in Jerusalem's Meah She'arim neighborhood.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Despite repeated declarations and promises, the Israeli government and the Education Ministry have again backed down from requiring ultra-Orthodox boys schools to teach core curricula.

As reported by Channel 2, the new Economic Arrangements Bill, which supplements the annual budget, says Haredi schools will be obligated to teach a full core curriculum only in 2018. The delay thus puts off full implementation of the curriculum until after the next general election.

Under a decision from May 2013, the Haredi boys schools were supposed to start teaching at least nine weekly hours of English, math and science this year, increasing to 11 hours by the 2016-17 school year. The new arrangements bill scraps that timetable and the education minister will draw up a new one.

Under the initiative, the recognized but unofficial schools — which include most Haredi elementary schools and which get 75 percent of the funding granted to state schools — were supposed to teach 75 percent of the core curriculum this school year and move to 100 percent by 2016-17. Any school that didn’t do so would be reclassified as an exempt school and would receive only 30 percent funding.

Officials of Hinukh Atzma’i, the independent Haredi school network, who were involved in the negotiations said that the office of Education Minister Shay Piron and the Finance Ministry disagreed about the sanctions to be imposed on Haredi schools that didn’t teach core studies.

In recent months, they said, various proposals were made for reducing funds from the budgets of such schools, ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent, if they did not meet the obligation to teach their pupils basic subjects.

But the treasury was insisting that all Haredi schools adopt all the core programs within a few years and proposing to cut off almost all the funding for exempt schools if they didn’t teach any core subjects.

“Suggestions for impractical sanctions were made that would have pushed the exempt schools into the hands of Haredi zealots,” one of Piron’s associates said. Piron thus refused the treasury’s demands and instead decided at this point not to implement his promise to introduce general studies to Haredi schools, this associate said.

The dispute about teaching core subjects in ultra–Orthodox schools has been roiling the Israeli public for years. Proponents say teaching core studies in the haredi schools is necessary to give the kids the skills they will need to join the broad job market. Many haredi families depend on public assistance – paid for with tax dollars – because the adult males study rather than work.

“It’s difficult to describe the [extent of the] damage that this retreat from implementation of the core–curriculum plan for Haredi boys’ education will cause for the future of Israel and its economy,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, who heads the HIddush religious pluralism organization.

Regev called the decision to apply the core-curriculum requirements to ultra-Orthodox schools and to reduce government funding for schools that fail to teach English and math “probably the most important that Yesh Atid" — Piron's party — "has taken since its entry into government.”

This year, Regev said, the Education Ministry was already due to reduce allocations to dozens and perhaps even hundreds of schools that had failed to teach secular subjects that students need when they enter the job market.

Instead the ministry is shifting responsibility for implementing the plan to the next government, as Yesh Atid also did with legislation imposing military service on draft-age ultra-Orthodox recruits, Regev said.

The postponement serves to further “education toward ignorance in the Haredi community, [causing] serious harm to the country’s economy and another critical blow to public confidence in the political system," he said.

For its part, the Education Ministry said in a statement that in the context of the 2014-2015 budget, "the government required ultra-Orthodox institutions to teach core subjects through a phased-in, set work plan.

"In the first phase, the ultra-Orthodox institutions will be required to meet implementation of the required steps (for example, by training current teachers, developing and implementing curriculum, etc.). Institutions that don’t meet the interim targets will have their funding offset immediately by 65%. In addition, if within three years the ultra-Orthodox institutions don’t meet goals of the overall plan, their licenses and budgets will be withdrawn completely.”

Despite the retreat on implementation of the core curriculum, on Sunday the Education Ministry said it had stepped up enforcement of the teaching of core subjects and had appointed inspectors to deal with the matter.