A Lesson in Spin

During those years of growing education budgets, the reading comprehension level among native-born military conscripts fell by almost 50 percent.

Each fall, the beginning of the school year is accompanied by articles and interviews that blame the budget cuts of recent years for the country's educational free fall. According to the spin approach to rewriting history, everything began with a report presented to prime minister Ehud Barak and his cabinet in 2000. I was a member of the academic team, headed by Professor Haim Ben-Shahar, that authored that report. We described Israel's overall socio-economic situation, its problematic long-run trajectories, their sources and their bleak implications for the country's future, and we pointed out the necessary fundamental policy changes.

If there was one central overarching theme in the report, it was that the trends developing since the 1970s did not stem from too little public spending, but rather from the national priorities that dictated how the money was spent.

One of the areas of focus was education. We found that during the 1990s, Israel's educational expenditure per pupil was high relative to that of other Western countries (after correcting for differences in living standards), while Israeli children showed very poor knowledge of math and science when compared with their peers in these very same developed countries (as reflected by international exams) - with all that this implies for Israeli children's ability to adapt to a modern and competitive economy. Under the circumstances, we recommended that the government not cut its educational spending to a level reflecting the poor education being provided here. Instead, we suggested that it implement a comprehensive reform that would raise the education system's output to a level justifying the large budgets.

Shortly after we appeared before Barak's cabinet, I published some additional findings on Israel's very high ranking in international testing during the 1960s, a fact that indicates a sharp deterioration in education quality over the subsequent decades. But why let such difficult facts get in the way of an otherwise intuitive story, when history can be rewritten to claim the decline stemmed from the budget cuts?

Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) has data on educational spending starting from the mid-1970s. These figures show that from 1975 through the early 1990s, the ratio of education spending to national income was relatively stable. OECD figures indicate that compared to other countries, this level of spending was indeed very high.

When the focus narrows to public expenditure per student in primary and secondary school, the graph shows that the Rabin government drastically increased educational expenditures during the 1990s - but it did so in an unfocused manner, and not as part of a systemic reform.

Hence, the quality of education continued to fall, not just in comparison with other countries but also when compared with ourselves. During those years of growing education budgets, the reading comprehension level among native-born military conscripts fell by almost 50 percent.

In an age when spin takes the place of fact as an educational value, why spend time trying to cure the illness when you can just throw some money at it, instilling a false sense of hope that the symptoms will disappear on their own? Leading those who thrive on an education policy of denial is Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who has no qualms about boasting of her success in receiving a huge, NIS 5 billion budget increase - at the expense of welfare and health - as an alternative for a comprehensive reform.

Tamir was absorption minister during that April 2000 cabinet meeting, at which we showed the ministers how a 1990s budget increase - similar to today's hike - did not prevent the precipitous educational decline (depicted in the graph). All of this suggests an Israeli corollary to the famous adage about leading a horse to water: You can lead our cabinet ministers to money, but it is extremely difficult to make them use it wisely.

The author teaches economics in the Department of Public Policy of Tel Aviv University.