The Revolution Underway in Haredi Classrooms

Finding a new voice, Israel's Education Ministry tells Ultra-Orthodox schools: teach the core curriculum- or lose funding.

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During the 2009-2010 school year the Shas party’s Ma'ayan Hahinuch Hatorani religious school network operated two unlicensed schools. The Education Ministry, which had never bothered overseeing ultra-Orthodox schools, didn't investigate and didn't act. Ma’ayan began adding more unlicensed schools.

In the following years, the number of its unlicensed schools grew from 11 to 14, and finally to no less than 31 last year. This, by the way, doesn't include the two schools that continued operating despite being slapped with closure orders at the behest of the ministry.

The Ma'ayan network's unsupervised spree came to light in a scathing report issued by the Finance Ministry's accountant general. The report's findings were adopted by Education Minister Shay Piron and conclusions have already been reached. The report revealed that the network, which receives a full budget allocation like state schools, abused its freedom from practical oversight. It falsified curriculum reports, diverted class hours from special education to general studies, engaged in nepotism in hiring, transferred payrolls unlawfully, paid salaries to non-employees and more – all at the expense of Israel's education budget.

That all this happened obviously shouldn't come as a surprise. Wherever there are unsupervised public funds, malfeasance is sure to follow.

In the case of Ma'ayan and the parallel independent school system run by United Torah Judaism, they were allocated the same level of funds as state schools in return for their commitment to teach a full core curriculum. But since supervision was never properly enforced, nobody knows if they have, in fact, been teaching core subjects either fully or in part. The independent system is believed to hardly teach any core studies while Ma'ayan probably offers some, but this is just a guess.

Last month a breakthrough occurred: For the first time a Haredi elementary school agreed to become a fully state-run school as part of the new State-Haredi school stream, which is subject to direct and complete supervision by the Education Ministry. As such, it is committed to the ministry's full curriculum – and not just the core curriculum – adjusted appropriately for the Haredi sector. It is also committed to administering the ministry's standardized tests. The word at the Education Ministry is that by the end of the month, 14 more schools will be signed up for the new stream.

Ministry officials are optimistic about the chances of success because of the money involved. Drastic changes in funding allocated to Haredi elementary schools were approved in the state budget. (The Education Ministry wants to avoid touching the high schools at this stage.)

Under the present arrangement, the two main Haredi school networks committed themselves to teach the entire officially designated core curriculum in return for 100% state funding. At the next level, most of the Haredi girls' schools (an "unofficial but recognized" educational stream) agreed to teach 75% of the core curriculum in return for an allocation equal to 75% of what state schools get. Following that was the elementary boys' schools (the "exempt" educational stream), which promised to teach 55% of core studies in exchange for a proportional allocation.

In practice, the core curriculum at the boys' schools was probably negligible. In other words, the state paid for core curricula while the money went for religious studies.

This open lie, which was known to all, continued for decades. This is the abomination of political arrangements in Israel, where some ultra-Orthodox institution received money from the state and used it as they wished. In effect, they exploited the state budget to pay for a lifestyle that eschewed paid employment. Government money allowed them to educate generations with an ideology of separatism from mainstream society.

Don’t trust, just verify

It's over. A number of decisions were made in the budgetary framework to augur an historic change in the funding of the Haredi educational system. The 55%-exempt stream was ended. All its schools will have to make do from now on with just a 35% allocation. If they want more, meaning an allocation of 75%, they will have to commit to teaching at least 75% of the core curriculum. And this time the Education Ministry promises that any commitments will be adhered to. Not only will the number of inspectors be increased, but maintaining the core curriculum also requires exams to be conducted. So any school that doesn’t teach core subjects will be exposed through its exam results.

The intensified supervision, and the requirement of standardized exams in particular, is about to be imposed on all Haredi schools – that is, the 75% stream and the two large school networks in particular.

In fact, the biggest revolution is expected to occur in the networks. The Education Ministry is actually working to replace these with the Haredi-state stream that will be under its full supervision, carry a full course load (not just core studies) and receive 100% budgeting. The networks will be given the option of joining the new stream, meaning in essence their being disbanded, or managing on 75% funding.

This sounds simple, but in reality it's much more complicated. First, the two networks enjoy the great political power wielded by Shas and United Torah Judaism, which will be hard to defy. Therefore the Education Ministry is holding talks with the networks on various compromise proposals that could stretch out the transformation over a number of years.

Second, the Haredi-state stream still hasn't taken shape because barriers of one sort or another have become apparent. There is no core curriculum adapted for Haredi schools (without pictures of girls in books used by boys and vice-versa), no Haredi teachers trained to teach core subjects and no criteria at all for regulating the activity of Haredi schools.

In short, the gigantic Education Ministry with its tens of billions of shekels hasn't even a minimal infrastructure for administering Haredi schools. The infrastructure needs to be built from the bottom up while overcoming the fierce objections of the networks and reach an accord with them. The revolution therefore still has a long way to go. But there's room for optimism since it has in fact gotten underway, raising the prospect that the criminal negligence in the existence of Haredi schools that don't educate towards good citizenship and integration into the workforce will be eliminated.

A Haredi girls school.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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