Education Minister Changes His Mind: Summer Vacation Will Not Be Cut Short

The summer vacation won't be shortened this year and the school year will begin on September 1 as usual, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar announced yesterday in a stunning reversal.

Just last week, Sa'ar had announced that the summer vacation would be shortened by six days this year, sparking widespread opposition among parents, students, and also the tourism industry. But at a press conference in Tel Aviv yesterday, Sa'ar said the head of the Teachers Union, Yossi Wasserman, had recently raised a legal argument that made the move impossible: Because teachers' summer vacations are calculated according to how many days they worked during the previous school year, starting the 2011-12 school year early would violate their legal rights to 60 days of vacation for elementary school teachers and 70 for high school teachers.

This means the new schedule cannot even be implemented next year unless the ministry reaches a new agreement on vacation days with the two teachers' unions this year.

"This is a new fact that we weren't aware of when the decision was made," Sa'ar said.

While the unions themselves had initially agreed to the plan, he added, "at the end of the day, the responsibility is mine. It doesn't matter what they said and what they recommended, the responsibility is mine as the one who heads the system. I wanted to make a change for the public's benefit, and I'm sorry I didn't succeed, at least at this time."

Wasserman, whose union represents elementary school teachers, said the issue actually had been raised at least once before the public committee that recommended the change, but it "wasn't discussed at such a level that the minister could have had any idea he was liable to run into a problem."

The second union, the Association of Secondary School Teachers, also praised Sa'ar for having reversed course once he was made aware of the problem, saying it demonstrated "public courage and a willingness to alter decisions in light of changed circumstances."

A source on the public committee said the panel's intention had been to implement the change only next year - a move that may have averted the problem. But its chairman, Shmuel Slavin, told Haaretz that the recommendations didn't specify a date for implementation.

Over the next month, the ministry will discuss the second part of the plan - lengthening certain mid-year school breaks to compensate for the shortened summer vacation - with both unions. The unions both support the move in principle, and if the mid-year breaks were lengthened this year, that would allow the 2012 summer vacation to be shortened.

But while the teachers praised Sa'ar's u-turn, some parents' representatives were furious. Itai Benjamin, chairman of the National Parents Council, said that if shortening the summer vacation were really as important as Sa'ar had asserted last week, he should have paid the teachers to waive the extra vacation days - a move that would have cost an estimated NIS 350-500 million, which the ministry said was completely out of the question.

"I can't refrain from saying that only in a banana republic could the education minister behave like this," Benjamin said.

"Since I was one of those who opposed the [initial] decision, I should ostensibly be happy that it was canceled. But you can't be happy about such incompetent, amateurish behavior."

Most parents' groups said they favored shortening the summer vacation in principle, but objected to it being done so belatedly, when many families had already made holiday plans for late August.