Failing Arab Schools Will Cost Our Economy Big

The education minister did something brave (or stupid): he's taking from the haves for the have-nots, who are about to become very numerous have-nots.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Illustration: Children playing at a dual Jewish-Arab school, Misgav, 2010
Illustration: Children playing at a dual Jewish-Arab school, Misgav, 2010Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Shai Piron, Israel's education minister, is either courageous or clueless.

He wants to take 600 million shekels ($174 million) of his budget to help elementary and middle schools in the socio-economically weakest areas of the country.

That would triple the money available now to support them. But is that the answer to anything?

For years, Israeli pupils have consistently ranked last among developed countries in international exams measuring 5th and 8th grade performance, in terms of equality in educational achievement. But the subsidies that the Education Ministry distributes to try to equalize things - at least in terms of spending – don't achieve much equality.

Schools in the bottom socioeconomic decile, for instance, got 11,725 shekels per student in 2012, not much more than the 10,631 shekels that schools in top-decile communities received. Experts have long urged something be done about it.

A no-brainer, you say. So which part of Piron's reform is courageous or clueless? The answer is all of it.

Most poor-performing schools are concentrated in the Arab sector. In the exams administered by the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, across 26 developed countries, Israel scored close to the bottom in 2012, even after our students made great strides in improving their score in the previous four years.

Jewish Israelis (not counting Haredim who don't take the test at all but would flunk it since they aren't taught the subjects being tested) did pretty well, scoring between their peers in Denmark and Norway. But Israeli Arabs' average score put them below the bottom of the class.

In the annual Meitzav achievement tests administered locally, the gaps between Hebrew and Arabic speakers in 5th grade ranged from 4.6% to 8.5% in English, math and science. And those gaps only widen as children grow older. By 8th grade, they range from 8.7% to 13.8%.

Logically, more of the Education Ministry's spending should go to Arab schools.

Because that's where the money is

Most of that extra spending will come at the expense of state-religious schools and to a lesser extent from secular schools in the socioeconomically strongest communities. Again, it makes sense to do it that way. As Willie Sutton is supposed to have answered when asked why he robbed banks, "That's where the money is."

Because they are usually smaller, teach more hours a week to cover secular and religious subjects and have sex-segregated classes, state-religious schools get more funding from the Education Ministry than any other sector.

Thus, Piron is testing the government's – and Israelis' – shaky commitment to reduce the socioeconomic gaps that bedevil us. On the one hand, he will be showering benefits on a segment of the population that is generally ignored and politically powerless. On the other hand, he will be taking it from the core constituency of his Yesh Atid Party – Israel's secular middle class – and the politically powerful national religious camp, represented by the Habayit Hayehudi Party, Yesh Atid's political partner.

All in all, it will be messy.

More than a year into office, Piron is no longer a political neophyte, so it's reasonable to assume he isn't clueless. Assuming he is acting out of courage then, it will take a lot of it to push the plan through.

Piron may fold under the pressure, but let's hope he doesn't because what may not be politically expedient today is economically critical for the country's future.

Not many Arabs at the top

Israel's Arab minority is 20% of the population but is confined to the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Last year Tsofen High Technology Centers, which promotes Arabs in high-technology, counted 1,200 Israeli Arabs working in the sector, just 1.5% of the industry's total payroll.

Here and there is an Israeli-Arab judge on the bench, but no Israeli Arab holds a key job in government. Israeli Arabs – women in particular – are less likely to be in the workforce at all and when they are tend to retire early because they are engaged in low-pay, low-status, physically demanding jobs. Not a single major company is led by an Arab CEO.

Apart from the moral obligation to assure equal rights and opportunities for everyone, Israel can no longer economically afford to make so little use of such a big and growing segment of the population. And the Israeli-Arab share of the population is growing.

According to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, Israeli Arabs accounted for 24.2% of all elementary school children in 2000, a figure that grew to 27% in 2013. In other words, a generation from now, more than one out of every four potential job applicants will be Israeli Arab. Are employers going to start the hiring process by narrowing their choice from the get-go to the other three because the Israeli Arabs don't have the required skills and education?

The situation is akin to the Haredi sector, which has grown too big to be ignored. Indeed, if you count in the Haredi sector by measuring their elementary school population, which is 2013 amounted to more than 18% of the total, it means employers 20 years from now will have to exclude nearly half of the potential applicant pool.

It isn't just about the job market. Without bringing Arabs into the educated middle class, a big part of Israel will have too little income to be considered middle class at all. That will mean the market for goods and services will be smaller and thinner, generating fewer jobs for the businesses that serve it. It will mean fewer people serving in the army, and fewer with the time, skills and aspirations to serve the community and provide the core of a democratic society.

The problems involved in integrating Israeli Arabs are almost the mirror opposite of integrating the Haredim, but are no less tricky.

Unlike the Haredim, Israeli Arabs aren't ideologically opposed to getting a secular, job-skills-oriented education. Israeli Arabs are more likely to have a degree than Haredim. Some 22% of all medical students today are Israeli Arabs. Moreover, the scores of Israeli Arab children on the Meitzav have been improving faster than their Jewish peers.

But more is going to have to change than school budgets.

Integrating Israeli Arabs into the workforce means integrating them into society. Israelis Jews will have give up their racist stereotypes and Israeli Arabs will have to make clear they aspire to be a part of Israeli society.

In that context, the debate about Christian Arabs enlisting in the army and Muslims participating in civilian national service should be resolved inside the Arab community in favor of both. It would not only be an expression of their readiness to find a place as full members of Israeli society but would help the integration process along. Money can help solve the problem of educational achievement, but the walls of suspicion and alienation stand their best chance of being broken down in basic training, in a hospital ward, where all are serving as volunteers, or in a university lecture hall.

The famed conductor Zubin Mehta visiting an Israeli Arab school in Kafr Qara (2010).Credit: Tomer Neuberg

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