Another Graveyard Commission

Not a day goes by without some new "revolution" in Israel, but for such a plethora of "revolutions," nothing moves here; and if there is movement, it is backward. Revolution, revolution, and nothing really changes. An Israeli might hear about it in the media, but apparently, it began without them.

Not a day goes by without some new "revolution" in Israel, but for such a plethora of "revolutions," nothing moves here; and if there is movement, it is backward. Now the education minister has defined the NIS 700 million addition that she received in her budget as "the begining of a new era in the school system."

It is very difficult to know what the government really decided this week in its cabinet session, since there is more that is hidden than revealed. But from the little that can be understood, we certainly are not at the start of any "new era."

First, the additional funds are contingent on certain complicated conditions, among others a new collective wage agreement with the teachers' unions whose signing is doubtful. Secondly, after 15 repeated cuts in the education budget in the "era" of Sharon, Livnat and Netanyahu, when NIS 3 billion to NIS 4 billion was cut from the base of the budget, the NIS 700 million is not going to block the enormous hole that has sprouted.

Third, there has not been any improvement in the condition of the local authorities, and they will only continue to deteriorate. The impotence of the city halls and councils is first seen in their schools, which are the primary victim because they are the main consumer of the local authority budget. Fourth, what is NIS 700 million out of NIS 25 billion - the overall budget available to Livnat - if not merely a negligible percentage that certainly does not spell the begining of a "new era."

The veil of fog that surrounds the conditional decision of the government makes it very difficult to estimate the "across the board cut" of 5 percent, which will also hit the Education Ministry. One treasury hand gives and the other continues cutting, and it is very possible that the cut will be greater than the addition this time as well. If so, it's nothing more than sleight of hand.

The Dovrat Commission summoned dozens of witnesses during its sessions, including me. I found it appropriate to warn the panel not to be disappointed: whatever your recommendations, I told them, they will involve large amounts of additional budgets, and there is no chance that that funding will indeed be provided as necessary, even if Sharon and Netanyahu and Livnat swear utter fealty to you.

Even the pathetic name given to the commission - "national task force" - won't save its recommendations from the preordained fate of any similar commission: silent burial in the middle of night. The chairman of the committee, Shlomo Dovrat, noticed a few days ago that he was being deceived and even threatened to resign, and I am not sure that even now he knows the bottom line of all the calculations.

In all the hubbub over how much is being given and how much is being taken, one thing is clear: the coming school year starts in two weeks, and will have six fewer hours a week in class for every pupil in Israel. Such a deep cut in the number of school hours is unprecedented in the history of the country. That's the fact on the ground, while all the rest is what may happen. It is not at all clear how the students will achieve more with fewer hours, how something more will be created out of something less. Or maybe it is clear: the declining achievements will continue to decline. And that the "new era" will begin with a giant step backward.

Livnat's Education Ministry wants the Dovrat Commission to be treated as the guiding light. The panel did make some worthy recommendations that should be implemented, and it also made some bad recommendations that should be rejected. It is no accident that those in the ministry want the public to view the recommendations as one package, so that we swallow the bad along with the good. But no, there is no need to accept the bad. And I have the feeling that it's the bad part that they'll want to implement first. Compulsory education from the age of three, for example, won't be implemented now, but they will start with firing teachers, without making clear how the firings themselves will help improve education. Most of the money promised now for the "reforms" is meant to compensate teachers who will be shoved out, without knowing who or what will come in their place.

The Dovrat Commission did not deal in higher education, and that's a shame, but its members certainly must have noticed that the 2005 budget once again sabotages another committee's recommendations - the Vinograd Commission, which I appointed as education minister. The treasury, as is its wont, created a problem to solve, but the fact is that the Vinograd recommendations are not being implemented in full in the "new era." Those recommendations were meant to help students from poor socio-economic backgrounds, and that vital help has been delayed, and now the salvation has to come from another committee.

Thus Dovrat replaces Vinograd. One commandment has yet to be fulfilled, and it is already giving way to another, which will no doubt also not be fulfilled. Every time they announce a "revolution," therefore, a study should be done to find out if a single citizen of the country will notice that "revolution" in the reality of their lives. That holds true for the education "revolution" just like the "Couples Registration" revolution or the revolution in the Tal Law. Revolution, revolution, and nothing really changes. An Israeli might hear about it in the media, but apparently, it began without them.