Budgets Are Returning to Religion

It is tough to come up with a worse investment for the state than a student who transfers from a state school, geared toward the army and work, to an ultra-Orthodox school, geared toward studying in yeshiva.

How much does it cost to transport hundreds of children from throughout the heart of the Sharon region to a religious outreach school belonging to the independent education system in the community of Kadima? Once, it was probably hard to find that information. But now, at the height of a transportation crisis in the independent education system, the Degel Hatorah newspaper Yated Ne'eman is providing the data: NIS 5,000 a day for 16 vehicles, some of which make a 25-kilometer trip, for a total of NIS 1 million a year. The path to religious outreach may be paved with good intentions, but it has become apparent that it is long and winding, and costs the taxpayer no small amount.

The ultra-Orthodox population has doubled in the past 15 years, while ultra-Orthodox education has at least tripled. One of the reasons for this is that secular and traditional students have transferred to schools in the religious outreach education networks, like Shuvu and Netivot Moshe. It is tough to come up with a worse investment for the state than a student who transfers from a state school, geared toward the army and work, to an ultra-Orthodox school, geared toward studying in yeshiva.

The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox education system argue that secular parents are registering their children in religious schools due to the high level of education, the personal touch and the values. The question is how important items such as hot lunches and free transportation are to the existence of the religious outreach network. When Shuvu was founded in 1998, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky, head of the Talmudic Yeshiva of Philadelphia, said that in Israel, it was possible to obtain students for religious schools "for small change, for lunch." Small change? Not exactly, to judge by the cost of transportation to Kadima.

Is it possible to obtain students in Israel without transportation? "If the service is not provided - and the very heart of the system is transportation - the children will 'graze in foreign fields,'" Rabbi Zvi Baumel, one of the leaders of the independent education system, told Yated Ne'eman.

In my series of articles for Haaretz, "Ultra-Orthodox '98," I discovered that the state had directly provided at least NIS 100 million to religious outreach institutions. But that was when the religious outreach education networks were in their infancy. It is reasonable to assume that the funding is far greater today.

It is now becoming clear that the state has provided transportation to the tune of NIS 35 million a year for the independent education system, and that a large portion of that money was used - in violation of the law and of good governance - for religious outreach schools that were not eligible for state-funded transportation. And why are they not eligible? Because of the principle of "the nearest institution." According to this principle, students are not bused to distant schools if schools in the same educational stream are located near their homes. The independent education system has many schools, but those in the process of becoming religious are bused to special schools so that they do not "ruin" the ultra-Orthodox children.

Since the money was not enough to bus the students who are becoming religious to school, and since without transportation, they will not come, the independent education system's administration came up with an original solution: It gave the religious outreach schools money earmarked for busing ultra-Orthodox children. After all, the ultra-Orthodox will register for ultra-Orthodox schools even without transportation.

The Justice Ministry has now ordered a stop to the illegal transportation budget party. The independent education system will receive only some NIS 20 million for transportation, for which it is legally eligible. If it wants to fund additional transportation, it will have to raise NIS 10 million to NIS 15 million a year.

However, some are concerned that the money taken away from transportation via the front door will return to the religious outreach system through the back door - that is, through other budgetary line items. It is a well-known political principle that there is no better time for making irregular budgetary requests than when a coalition crisis is brewing and the government is unstable. The vehicles transporting students to religious outreach schools at the state's expense, and in violation of the law, ought to serve as warning signals during impending coalition negotiations.

It is hard to think of any government that might replace the current government that would not face the temptation of conducting a liquidation sale of the budget for the sake of the ultra-Orthodox parties, and through them, the religious outreach system. Anyone who gives in and does so might acquire a short-lived government, but he will be mortgaging the country's future.