Despite Rabbis' Opposition, English and Math Are Now Part of Haredi Curriculum

For the first time since the core curriculum program was introduced in 2003, the government says that all pupils at elementary schools belonging to the Shas and Agudat Yisrael networks are acquiring the basic education the state requires in mathematics, English, sciences and grammar.

The Education Ministry reported recently that all of the "recognized but unofficial" education facilities affiliated with these ultra-Orthodox parties "are fully implementing the core curriculum program."

Just three inspectors monitor some 300 institutions of this kind, so it's no surprise that some cast doubt on the assertion. But from conversations with Haredi educators and actual visits, it appears that the core curriculum and text books approved by the Education Ministry are indeed a fact at some ultra-Orthodox schools, especially those run by Shas. It happened quietly over the course of many years, despite the objections of several leading rabbis and despite the official position of Haredi parties.

Several days before the official data on compliance with the program were released, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised Shas, in the coalition agreement, that his cabinet would pass a new law securing the rights of Haredi education and budgets for it. The law would "permit all Haredi education institutions to continue carrying out the education and study programs unique to them," and would "arrange for the continued existence of the independent inspection system of the Haredi education institutions."

Such a law would secure Haredi schools for the 2007/08 school year. Beginning that year, the government, under a High Court ruling, is supposed to make the funding schools receive conditional upon the degree to which they comply with the core curriculum. The new law would stipulate that under no circumstances would the schools' budgets be touched.

At work here are two seemingly contradictory processes. On the one hand, hundreds of Haredi schools are adopting the core curriculum, and some are topping the national charts on standardized tests of basic subjects. On the other hand, the Haredi parties want to preserve the autonomy of their school networks and keep the state's hands off their contents and money. The coalition agreement with Shas states: "Even in the event of an organizational, structural or content change to the education system, the unique status, the organizational and educational independence and the budget of the Haredi educational will not be harmed."

A glance at this agreement might lead one to conclude that the law designed to bypass the High Court ruling is meant to permit Haredi schools to focus only on sacred studies, while enjoying funding. But Attorney Amram Melitz, who helped negotiate Shas' agreement, says there was no intention of not teaching the core curriculum at their schools. "The whole intention is for the state not to interfere. What was written about the study content is declarative and not operative," he says. "The core curriculum has never been a problem for Shas."

So why did Shas insist on this clause? After three years in the opposition, Shas is exploiting its return to government to try to ground in law everything that was in doubt when it was out of power and Shinui took its place. Shas is worried that a party in Shinui's vain might reappear in a term or two.

Shas copied the education clauses verbatim from the coalition demands of United Torah Judaism. Attorney Yaakov Weinroth, who led the UTJ negotiating team, says the purpose of the law is to eliminate discrimination against Haredi schools, not to give them extra privileges. "The core curriculum is implemented, but the institutions do not receive the budget in full, mainly from the local authorities," he says.

The elementary Haredi schools fall into four categories. Those designated "recognized education that is not official" are under some supervision by the Education Ministry and receive 75 percent of the budget for state schools. Two Haredi networks in this group have held special status since 1992: The Agudat Yisrael and Shas schools get 100 percent of the budgets, akin to state schools. These account for some 300 schools, which the Education Ministry inspects and says are implementing the core curriculum fully. A third group are "exempt institutions," Talmudei Torah and heders belonging to the Lithuanian stream or to the Sephardic stream that are not connected to Shas' network. These institutions teach a minimum of general studies, and they are budgeted at 55 percent. A fourth type is institutions such as those run by the anti-Zionist Haredim, which are not supervised and do not receive state funding.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir told Haaretz that she is currently studying the subject in depth and that one of her goals is to reach an understanding with the Haredi public regarding shared study content."