Israeli ultra-Orthodox School System Takes the Money and Runs

The Ashkenazi Independent Education System receives $326 million in taxpayer funds annually but wards off government oversight. And too bad it shuns standardized tests.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children outside the Education Ministry in Jerusalem.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children outside the Education Ministry in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, let out a sarcastic laugh when I asked him why the ultra-Orthodox Asheknazi school system he heads, the Independent Education System, refuses to take part in the nationwide Meitzav standardized tests.

“We won’t allow any procedure in which the Education Ministry is involved,” Gafni said, feeling free to speak on the record. “It’s our educational independence – we decide, not the Education Ministry. We decided this back in the days of Ben-Gurion, who assured our educational independence. We won’t accept dictates, and we won’t accept the Education Ministry’s oversight.”

Gafni’s candidness would be admirable if it weren’t for one tiny problem. The Independent Education System is Israel’s largest ultra-Orthodox – or Haredi – school system and relies on taxpayer money. The independence Gafni is so proud of is only a question of pedagogy and oversight. When it comes to funding, the Independent Education System is far from independent – the state finances it to the tune of 1.2 billion shekels ($326 million) annually.

So the Education Ministry has no oversight, and the Finance Ministry has very little. While the Finance Ministry has an accountant working in the Independent Education System, with no one to assist him and no support from the Education Ministry, his ability to figure out what’s going on is severely limited.

The Independent Education System is largely for Ashkenazi Jews – those with roots in Europe – as opposed to Mizrahi Jews, those with roots in the Middle East.

One reason for worry is that when the Mizrahi Haredi school system, the Shas-controlled Maayan Hachinuch Hatorani, was subjected to a review three years ago by the Finance Ministry’s accountant general, massive irregularities were discovered including 20 illegal schools and an average class size of eight children rather than 20 as required by the Education Ministry.

Also, two schools were still operating despite having been ordered to close for safety reasons, and employees who were still working were receiving retirement benefits. Finally, there were more than 1,000 staff members whose spouses were also employed by the system, double salary payments, and even fictitious salary payments to people not working.

All this went on under the nose of the Finance Ministry accountant in the Mizrahi Haredi school system, which is much smaller than the Independent Education System. So there are very serious concerns that similar things could be discovered if the Ashkenazi system went through an in-depth review.

MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism)Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

One such review is finally underway. Three years after the scathing review of the Mizrahi system, the bigger and wealthier Ashkenazi system is still being coddled by the accountant general. A Finance Ministry spokeswoman told TheMarker that cooperation between the Independent Education System and the accountant general’s office had improved, and that two sections of a review had been completed.

“The subject of staff and teachers’ wages is yet to be completed,” the spokeswoman said. “Since we’re still mid-review, we won’t publish the findings now to avoid harming the process.”

Shady salary practices

This is a curious response given the time since the review of the Mizrahi system was completed, and considering that the two sections of the Ashkenazi review that have been completed are of less controversial areas. When major irregularities are found, they usually concern wages, and these have not been reviewed.

Could the Finance Ministry be protecting the Independent Education System because it fears powerful politicians like Gafni? This wouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, one of the last moves by former Accountant General Michal Abadi-Boiangiu was on the appointment of an official in the Independent Education System – a deputy director for salary affairs.

Correspondence between Abadi-Boiangiu and former Education Ministry Director General Michal Cohen shows that these two powerful women did not even decide on whether a school system that receives 1.2 billion shekels of public funds annually should be allowed to have a paid deputy director.

“This situation, in which the Education Ministry is not involved in determining the organizational structure of the Independent Education System, which is funded with more than 1 billion shekels, does not seem reasonable to me,” Abadi-Boiangiu wrote.

“I have explained to the director general that it is not the job of the accountant general to rule on such matters . The director general replied that this matter has always been handled by the department of the accountant general . Unfortunately, as we see, the Education Ministry is not addressing the matter, the officials from the budget department are declining to addresss the matter, and we are operating in a void.”

The Independent Education System is basically a hot potato that no one wants to touch. The Education Ministry fobs the responsibility off on the Finance Ministry’s accountant general, and the accountant general fobs it off on the Education Ministry. And they both fob it off on the budget department, which won’t touch the subject either. Consequently, there’s no real government oversight.

The Independent Education System seems to be the organization that receives the most government funding without any oversight. In many ways, the government throws 1.2 billion shekels every year into a black hole with no idea what’s being done with it.

The Independent Education System doesn’t have its students take part in the Metizav standardized tests, though the Mizrahi system does. Ever since the major irregularities were uncovered by the Finance Ministry review, and since Arye Dery took over the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party Shas from Eli Yishai, the Mizrahi system has shown a greater willingness to cooperate with the Education Ministry.

Asked why what’s good for the Mizrahim shouldn’t be good for the Ashkenazim, Gafni replied: “Why don’t you send Maayan Hachinuch flowers? We have no intention of being tested by outside examinations. We’ll only use the independent examinations that we conduct ourselves.”

Shunning international exams

Neither Haredi school system takes part in the international TIMSS and PISA standardized tests. As a result, Israel is essentially violating the conditions set down by the international organizations involved, since the rate of nonparticipants in the exams far exceeds the allowed levels. With the TIMSS exams, the allowed nonparticipation rate is 5%, but Israel excuses 17.6% of its students, mainly because Haredi children don’t take the tests; that community makes up 15.7% of Israeli schoolchildren.

Haredi girls did take the last PISA tests, and even did surprisingly well in math, equivalent to girls in the state religious school system but lower than girls in the state secular school system. In science and reading, the Haredi girls scored much lower than girls in either public school system (though higher than girls in the Arab public schools).

The Haredi girls’ participation in the international tests isn’t that surprising when you consider that in the Haredi schools, girls are often taught core-curriculum subjects; the expectation is that they’re the ones who eventually will work to support the family. Therefore, there was nothing to fear from them taking the tests.

However, the insistence in both Haredi school systems that boys not take the international tests, and the Ashkenazi system’s refusal for boys to take the Meitzav exams, are a clear signal that they have something to hide. That is, they don’t teach core subjects and the kids are likely to fail.

Thus the Education Ministry’s peculiar response on how it oversees the Haredi schools’ core curriculum, particularly in the Ashkenazi system, should be taken with a grain of salt. The ministry says 65% of the boys’ schools in the Ashkenazi system and 93% of the boys’ schools in the Mizrahi system teach a full core curriculum, because all the Haredi schools are under ministry oversight, and all the Haredi teachers teach core subjects.

It’s very hard to see how the Education Ministry could cite such high figures, especially regarding the Ashkenazi system, when this system refuses to let inspectors enter its facilities, doesn’t submit to tests, has no accounting reviews, and when everyone knows that there’s a huge shortage of Haredi teachers qualified to teach core subjects.

In fact, the Education Ministry received extra funding from the Finance Ministry to train 700 Haredi teachers to teach core subjects. Data from the Council for Higher Education shows that just 10% of Haredi teachers are college graduates, and there is a shortfall of 17,000 teachers with appropriate education for Haredi elementary schools alone. So just who’s teaching core subjects to 65% or 93% of the Haredi students?

Like the accountant general’s office, the Education Ministry’s oversight of the Haredi schools, especially the Ashkenazi system, appears to be largely lip service. Gafni’s audacity is therefore completely understandable. He can take 1.2 billion shekels of taxpayer money while proclaiming that he needn’t be subject to Education Ministry supervision. He knows that no politician or government official will stop him.

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