Controversies Bookend School Year

1.5 million children celebrate start of two-month summer vacation

This school year, which 1.5 million children celebrated the conclusion of yesterday, both opened and closed with a bang. It kicked off with outrage over private religious schools' refusal to admit immigrant Ethiopian students, and it ended with furor over the ethnic segregation of an ultra-Orthodox girls school.

During last year's summer vacation, some 100 students in Petah Tikva did not know where they would be going to school come September 1. An arrangement was finally reached to enable the rejected, humiliated children to enroll in school - but only several days after the school year had begun.

A few weeks ago, after questions from the mathematics matriculation exam leaked out, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said the decision to hold the exam anyway (with different questions ) was itself a test of values and logistics, which the ministry had passed successfully.

However, numerous students complained that it was an especially difficult exam. In addition, it began late after the Internet site, from which the schools downloaded the exam forms, crashed.

At the end of the year, the segregation affair in the Beit Yaakov girls school in Immanuel erupted. Apparently the Education Ministry had been aware of the discrimination against the school's Sephardi girls for a long time, but had failed to address it and enabled the illegal segregation to continue.

The High Court of Justice verdict handed down in August 2009, banning the segregation, castigated not only ultra-Orthodox education but the ministry, which "overstepped its authority by failing to take measures to prevent the discrimination."

Following the verdict the ministry had no choice but to act on it, but the segregation continued until the court sentenced dozens of parents to prison two weeks ago for flouting the law.

Sa'ar is the first education minister to set measurable goals for improving students' scores on international exams in future years.

Teachers feelthe pressure

Teachers complain, however, that the pressure to get good marks is certainly felt in the schools, especially elementary ones.

"In the past, we had the autonomy to emphasize certain topics. Now all the activity is focused on improving grades," says a veteran school principal from the central region.

Sa'ar acted to foster and cultivate patriotic sentiments. He raised the number of students visiting Jerusalem by 100 percent, to 400,000. Some 73,000 of them also visited the rightist Elad Association site (City of David ). And some 350 IDF officers held activities with teachers to encourage students to enlist in the army. In addition, a new subject was introduced for next year - Jewish history and culture studies.

Sa'ar criticized prominent Tel Aviv high school principals, like Zeev Dagani (Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium ) and Ram Cohen (Ironi Aleph ) for not toeing his conservative line, while embracing the right-wing Im Tirtzu movement.

The education minister's emphasis on fostering patriotic sentiments has been censured.

"Only totalitarian states emphasize cultivating patriotic feelings without balancing this with the development of universal values, such as respect for minorities and tolerance for a variety of opinions," says Professor Gavriel Salomon, winner of the Israel Prize in education.