Is Netanyahu Serious About Making Haredim Study Math?

New budget amendments will force Shas schools to adopt a core curriculum in return for state funding. But the much larger Ashkenazi Haredi network of schools wants to take the money and run.

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

I doubt whether the Israeli public has even heard of section 3AT of the Budget Law, and certainly never bothered to take any interest in this short section. But this is tragic apathy since this tiny section could determine the cultural and moral fate of the State of Israel. So it is no surprise that an all-out war is being staged behind the scenes over section 3AT, with the Education, Finance and Justice Ministries along with the Prime Minister’s Office all taking part in the battles - under the orders of those involved in the matter, the Ashkenazi Haredim.

This little section in the law states that students studying in the large Haredi elementary school systems — Shas’ Ma’ayan Hahinuch Hatorani, and the Ashkenazi independent network — will be entitled to the same budgetary funding as all Israeli school children.

This section was tailor made to apply to those two school systems, and in an exceptional fashion for the Budget Law, the two school systems are mentioned by name. The section guarantees full funding from the Education Ministry, as if the two school networks were official state systems in every way.

Ma’ayan Hahinuch receives some 600 million shekels ($ 173.4 million) a year because of this section, and the Haredi Ashkenazi schools receive 1.2 billion shekels. The majority of Haredi elementary school students, some 100,000 out of 170,000, receive full funding from the state budget - in grade schools that are not under the supervision of the Education Ministry, and where the curriculum is whatever the schools decide to teach, and not the official ministry one.

This is how section 3AT lays the foundation for the continuation of the Haredi world we know so well: A world of learning paid for by taxpayers - but without almost any core curriculum studies; a world that raises entire generations in ignorance, isolation and non-employment.

This is the world that the Yesh Atid party, headed by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, has come out to destroy. So far they have focused the outcry on “sharing the burden equally,” i.e. drafting Haredim into military or alternative national service. But the much more important change — that of altering the Haredi school systems so that they provide students with an education and the tools necessary to integrate into the modern workforce — has been pushed aside.

The Haredi fight for survival

This battle over changing the Haredi school systems has been led by Education Minister Shay Piron, who is also from Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, and he has done this almost all by himself. Arrayed against him are incredible forces. It is no coincidence that the proposal included originally in the 2013-2014 budget to remove section 3AT from the Budget Law was the first thing to be dropped during the cabinet meeting on the budget. It is no secret that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not a great fan of Yesh Atid’s battle against the Haredim, and Netanyahu also knows that the very heart of this war is not in the populist sharing the burden issue, but in the continued funding of the separatist Haredi educational networks. Without the special funds there will be no separatist Haredi school systems, and without its separatist school systems the Haredi culture will not remain the same.

This is then a Haredi struggle for survival. A battle of life and death, and it has come up again now because of the Education Ministry’s proposal to cancel section 3AT in the 2015 budget, as well as the agreement now being formulated between the ministry and one of the two large Haredi school networks, Shas’ Ma’ayan Hahinuch.

It was the bad luck of Ma’ayan Hahinuch that brought this on. The Shas school system was managed irresponsibly and abused the lack of supervision by the Education Ministry to operate dozens of unlicensed schools, employing relatives, paying salaries to people who didn’t even work and in general employing budgetary trickery that deviated sharply from legal. The discovery of these practices shone a spotlight on Shas’ educational network. The school system’s bad luck continued when the Finance Ministry’s accountant general also discovered these budgetary failures; and then, even worse, it occurred just when Lapid happened to be sitting in the office of Finance Minister - the same Lapid who has inscribed in his heart the war against the Haredim - and also at the same point when the Haredi political influence is at a low and they are isolated from the positions of power.

In short, the Ma’ayan Hahinuch Hatorani school system was caught red-handed, exactly at the historic moment when the Finance and Education Ministries were striving to implement a revolution in Haredi education and to introduce a core studies program - that would include basic subjects like math, science and English — and the Haredim have little power at the moment to object.

The result is a new agreement between the Shas school system and the Education and Finance Ministries. The agreement is now in its final stages of approval. It will introduce order into the management of the system and the teaching of the core curriculum to Haredi students. In fact, to be more accurate, it will introduce the Education Ministry curriculum, as well as greatly increasing the ministry’s educational and budgetary supervision over Ma’ayan Hahinuch - to guarantee that the agreement it signs is actually implemented.

An unprecedented agreement

Past experience, in which the two Haredi school systems agreed to teach the core curriculum program in return for 100% government funding, but never really kept their commitments, raise doubts about the present agreement. That is why there are those who are presenting it as an achievement for Shas, which has managed to keep its full funding levels as though it was a state school system in every way. In comparison, the Education Ministry views the agreement as a historic achievement, which will finally guarantee that the school system is managed under full ministry supervision; along with the full ministry curriculum, including taking all the national and international standard tests. If the Education Ministry is correct, then despite all the doubts, problems and reservations it is truly an unprecedented agreement with historic implications.

The problem is that the only ones who are agreeing to change are the Mizrahi Haredim. The accountant general’s audit was only of the Shas schools, and only Ma’ayan Hahinuch was found to be violating the law; so only the Mizrahi school system was forced to sign the agreement to adhere to the full Education Ministry curriculum.

The stronger, larger and it seems better managed school system - the Ashkenazi independent school network - is continuing to laugh from the sidelines. That system was not audited, so there were no exceptional findings that would have justified government intervention in its management, and section 3AT protects it and grants it the right to continue to receive full funding - even if it does not teach the ministry’s core curriculum program.

This is a bit absurd. After all, the Israeli government committed itself to introducing the core curriculum into Haredi schools, and to make the acceptance of state funding conditional on teaching the core program. Yesh Atid, which is the chief proponent of this policy, holds the two most important ministerial portfolios to implement this policy - education and finance. There is no reason that these two powerful ministries cannot take the necessary action and decide that an educational institution that does not teach the core curriculum will not receive state funding. The two ministries could act to drop section 3AT, regardless of any audit by the accountant general of the Ashkenazi Haredi school system.

The only problem is that the government finds itself locked in from two sides. First, the attorney general has ruled out canceling the funding of the two school systems - if the state does not provide an alternative. 100,000 students from the two school systems cannot just thrown out of school and into the streets one morning if the government does not have places ready for them in state schools. Of course, the government does not have any such alternative ready; and in reality what the Education Ministry has been working hard at over the past year is setting up such an alternative.

The alternative includes preparing text books appropriate for Haredi education, training Haredi instructors to teach the core subjects, establishing a new supervision division for the Haredi schools that teach the core curriculum, and most important, establishing a new Haredi state-sponsored educational stream that the Haredi schools can join. This stream is still in diapers and only a few dozen schools have joined so far.

In addition, the Education Ministry has another alternative of sorts. In signing the agreement with Ma’ayan Hahinuch, the ministry promised full funding to the school system in return for accepting the full Education Ministry curriculum. Legally, the signing of this agreement could paint the Ashkenazim into a corner - they could no longer claim they have no alternative, since they could now sign a similar agreement as did the Shas school system.

The problem is that in order to provide such an alternative, the government must deal with the Ashkenazim in a determined fashion, by putting their backs up against the wall and making it clear that the intention to cancel section 3AT are serious, so it is worth it for the Ashkenazi Haredim to learn a lesson from their Mizrahi peers.

Such determination would require political willpower and unity - not just from Lapid and Piron but in particular from Netanyahu. At this stage, in which the Ashkenazim are completely refusing to cooperate and hold a dialogue on the matter, it seems they are quite convinced that the prime minister is on their side.

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