Some 450,000 Israeli Arab students will stay home from school today as Arab schools have called a solidarity strike in support of the church schools. The country’s 47 Catholic schools have been on strike since the start of the school year last Tuesday to protest government budget cuts.
On Sunday thousands of people demonstrated opposite the Prime Minister’s Office to demand additional state funding for the church schools, where some 30,000 students, mainly Arabs, learn. The leaders of the Catholic Church in Israel attended the protest, as did both Christian and Muslim parents and students, Knesset members and Arab mayors.
The church schools fall into the category of “recognized but unofficial,” meaning they are not part of the state school system, but are accredited by the government and receive 75 percent of the funding given to regular state schools. The remainder comes from tuition payments that average 4,000 shekels ($1,000) a year, but can run higher at the most prestigious schools. Both Christians and Muslims attend these schools.
Despite the church schools’ ongoing protests, there has been no progress in their negotiations with the Education Ministry, said Father Abdel Messih, who heads the forum of Christian school principals. The ministry’s proposal that the schools join the state system is unacceptable, he added, because it means “expropriating the schools and their cultural and educational history and heritage, some of which goes back hundreds of years.”
MK Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint Arab List, noted, “Almost a third of Arab university graduates and an absolute majority of Arab high-tech workers are graduates of the very schools that the government is now trying to paralyze. It’s impossible to talk about development and equal opportunity on one hand, but on the other hand harm the very schools that are succeeding in breaking the glass ceiling.”
MK Masud Ganaim, who represents the Islamic Movement in the Joint Arab List, said the church schools are “among the best in Arab society, and therefore their struggle is our struggle.”
Nazareth Mayor Ali Salem agreed. “This isn’t the schools’ private problem, but an issue for all of Arab society,” he said.
Other Arab mayors and the Arab school parents’ committees echoed this message, stressing that Christians and Muslims alike study at these schools.
All these remarks were in line with the main message the demonstration’s organizers sought to drive home: that funding the church schools is a gain for the country, not a loss.
The Catholic schools say the Education Ministry has been cutting their funding for the last six years, and especially the last two, while simultaneously limiting the amount of tuition they are allowed to charge. The combination, they say, shapes up as a “death blow.”
They also argue that they are being discriminated against in comparison with the two main ultra-Orthodox school systems – Hinuch Atzmai, affiliated with the United Torah Judaism party, and Ma’ayan Hahinuch Hatorani, affiliated with the Shas party. Those school systems are not part of the state system, either, and generally refuse to teach core curriculum subjects like English and math to boot. Yet they receive 100 percent of the funding given regular state schools.
The church schools are demanding state funding of 200 million shekels a year, so that they can cease charging tuition altogether. So far, however, the Education Ministry has offered them only 20 million shekels.