The Rashi Foundation plans to expand its contribution to education in Israel through two ventures: one to establish a network of high schools funded by government but with its extra touch; the other an effort with the Joint Distribution Committee in Israel to provide a three-year boost for selected elementary schools, with the idea of improving them for the long term.
The foundation describes itself as "committed to quality and opportunity in education and social welfare for the young and the under-served in Israel's periphery."
Established in 1984 by Perrier mineral water baron Gustave Leven, it has grown hugely and has also become a major supplier of advice and services to Israel's Education Ministry. To name but one area, having won a ministry tender, the foundation has taken over responsibility for the long-study-day hot-meal programs at 100 elementary schools in outlying areas - a venture that was supposed to be nationwide and may yet be one day.
It provides tutoring at schools, in compliance with Education Ministry guidelines, and helps improve infrastructure. Recently the foundation built six new schools in northern Israel at a cost of $60 million, all funded by donations.
The Rashi Foundation is believed to be the biggest such fund operating in Israeli education: In 2009 alone it donated $150 million to various educational efforts.
Regarding high schools, the foundation doesn't plan to build new ones from scratch. It intends to take over certain schools in outlying areas and improve them, starting from the school year beginning in September 2011. The plan for elementary schools is set to begin this year.
The foundation receives money from donors but is also funded by the Education Ministry, local authorities and partners around the world, including the JDC.
The high schools Rashi takes over in the peripheral towns would become part of a single network. Responsibility for them would pass from the local authorities to the foundation.
In Israel, all elementary schools belong to the state, but that isn't the case for high schools. They can be owned by local authorities or external networks such as the Ort and Amal associations. Ort, for instance, says on its Web site that it provides educational programs to more than 100,000 pupils in Israel at 160 schools and colleges. Amal also runs schools throughout the nation.
Though schools may be run by an external network, they remain funded and supervised by the state - directly by the Education Ministry, not by local authorities. The Rashi schools would fall into that category.
In some cases, mainly in poorer peripheral towns, transferring ownership from the local authority to a private network augurs well for the pupils. The networks have know-how and experience in running high schools, and are considered better at making use of resources.
But Rashi's model is different from Amal or Ort. While they charge 6% to 9% of the budget they receive from the Education Ministry for management, Rashi plans to charge nothing, says the foundation's general director, Elie Elalouf. It will transfer every shekel received from the ministry to the schools. Taxpayer money will not be used to finance the fund's costs, he vows.
"Our purpose is not to compete with the existing systems," Elalouf says. "It is to promote educational initiatives in the periphery in order to encourage excellence. The foundation has no agenda other than to advance schools and help the students."
Last week Elalouf met with Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar to describe the foundation's plans. The schools will operate based on the highest standards of the Education Ministry and will cooperate with teachers and parents throughout all stages of education, Elalouf says.
Pupils at Rashi Foundation high schools will study more hours, the classes will be smaller and the quality of the teachers will be better, he says.
The foundation is currently in talks with a number of associations and public bodies, hoping to bring them on board as partners.
To begin with, it hopes by March to enlist 10 to 20 schools as a pilot program. As said, the chosen schools will begin to operate as Rashi schools from September 2011. With the experience gained from the pilot, Rashi would expand the plan to more schools. It plans to embrace a range of sectors - regular state schools, religious schools and schools in the Arab sector.
A budget for its two-pronged plan hasn't been finalized. Elalouf says, however, that schools joining the program will receive a 15% to 20% boost to their budgets.
Elalouf views the foundation's contribution as stepping in where local authorities simply can't afford to. The foundation has the experience to help. "We know we have something to offer and to contribute," he says.
At this stage, the Rashi Foundation is not defined as an educational network. To achieve that, it has to go through a legal process and obtain permits from the Education Ministry.
The ministry commented that it does not intervene in the considerations of local authorities when it comes to transferring responsibility for schools to private networks; its concern is to make absolutely sure that when such transfers happen, they are done strictly by the rules.
Doesn't Elalouf think there's a problem with a private foundation intervening in the management of schools?
"There are hundreds of schools owned by networks, and it's bad. This isn't a business, it's public education," he says. "Our network will raise many more resources than local authorities can provide and let students study things that the local authorities can't always afford. That doesn't mean anything beyond the state enabling the third estate to take over another responsibility for the services [the state] provides."
Aside from setting up a network of Rashi schools, the foundation wants to become more deeply involved at the elementary level. Here there are no private networks: It's all the Education Ministry. Rashi can't set up schools.
What it can do, together with the JDC-Israel, is to set up a three-year (at least ) venture called Revadim that aims to provide a richly financed boost to the schools. After the three years, the foundation plans to step back, hopefully leaving the schools in better condition and providing a better quality of education.
Rashi hopes to begin with 30 schools and expand to more than 150.
Revadim's contribution will be to provide a range of services, from hot meals to tutoring to sports after regular school hours. Among other things, the venture aims to fix up classrooms and help upgrade other infrastructure.
The program is run by Dalia Peretz, until recently the co-principal of Hand in Hand, a Jewish-Arab bilingual school in Jerusalem.
One of the venture's goals is to narrow the educational gap between central Israel and outlying areas.
Schools that join the Revadim program will each receive NIS 600,000 in assistance over three years (NIS 200,000 a year ). The schools must commit to evaluations throughout all stages of the program - not least testing the pupils - and will win financial rewards based on success. The goal is to improve the pupils' grades, support outstanding ones, and reduce the violence at schools while improving relations between the kids and the teachers.
Now the foundation's plans have been presented to Sa'ar and to the Education Ministry staff, and negotiations are apace. For this to happen, the Rashi Foundation and ministry have to work together closely.
"The elementary schools, even the best ones, need reinforcement and improvement," says Elalouf. "We were asked in the past to provide support for elementary schools in the periphery, to lift them to the level expected of the Education Ministry, or higher." That left the foundation with a taste for more - it didn't want to move on, it wanted to continue to support the schools, which could use some help.