Facts That Are Convenient to Overlook

One-third of the students are under the poverty line. They need additional support − personal, educational and nutritional.

In 2000, profs. Elhanan Helpman and Haim Ben-Shahar and Dr. Dan Ben-David appeared before the cabinet with the following news: There is waste in the area of education. They argued that the state education budget contained a superfluous NIS 3.5 billion.

Their report was like a gift from the heavens for the treasury, which rushed to "balance" the base of the education budget by cutting from it the sum suggested by the experts (amounting to a cumulative cut of more than NIS 11 billion in the 2001-05 period).

As a result, 250,000 instructional hours were cut. Each junior-high student lost a full school day, which was followed by a concomitant decline in education achievement and the matriculation pass rate, erosion of teachers' salaries and a weakening of the entire education system. Despite the enormous damage caused by the report, Ben-David has continued his campaign via a series of opinion pieces in Haaretz about the education system, the last two entitled "Education Minister in Denial" and "Education Reform Now," a campaign based on half-truths and a clear lack of understanding about the needs of Israel's education system.

To begin to understand the inaccuracy of Ben-David's claims, one must refer to "Education at a Glance," the international database issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). According to its figures, which are expressed in terms of buying power, per-pupil spending in Israel at all levels is below the average for OECD member states. In pre-elementary education, for example, Israel spends 25 percent less than the OECD average, while at the high-school level Israel spends 14 percent below the OECD average.

Even more worrying is the trend toward erosion. In 1994, private spending on education as a proportion of national spending was 19 percent. In 2004 it was 24 percent. The implication is clear: increasing privatization of the education system and growing gaps and inequality.

The gap between public spending on education in Israel and in OECD states has increased. Between 1995 and 2003, education spending in Israeli increased by 2 percent, while in OECD states it rose by 33 percent. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the Israeli education system is losing its international competitive edge.

These figures, worrying in themselves, do not reflect the special needs and characteristics of the Israeli education system.

First, the divided nature of the system results in a large number of schools for various communities, too numerous for the needs of the population. As long as the sector-based structure is maintained, the education system in Israel will be more expensive than its counterparts abroad.

Second, the Israeli education system is one that absorbs new immigrants. Twenty percent of all K-12 students in the past 20 years are new immigrants. These students have been absorbed more successfully in Israel than in countries with older and more stable education systems that failed in their integrative mission and left the children of immigrants at the margins of the education system, or outside of it.

Third, the Israeli education system is multilingual, multireligious and multinational. This results in the development of a very wide range of curricula, in a range of languages, which requires control and supervision by separate mechanisms appropriate to the various systems.

Fourth, one-third of the students in Israel's schools are under the poverty line. The children bring their economic distress, and all that it implies, with them to school. They need additional support - personal, educational and nutritional.

Last, and definitely not least, the Israeli education system, like the rest of Israeli society, must cope with recurring security crises that necessitate special arrangements for those affected by trauma and for schools located in vulnerable areas. No other education system in the Western world has had to spend tens of millions of shekels for reinforcement and security, on one hand, and the treatment of people affected by war and anxiety on the other hand.

Thankfully, there were no cuts to the education budget in the current fiscal year, and additional resources were allocated to the Galilee and the Negev, but the Israeli education system is still not back on track. In the recommendation stage of the Knesset finance and education committee deliberations of the past few weeks, an unequivocal demand was voiced to reach a new agreement with the teachers, with all the attendant costs, and to allocate resources for the genuine needs of the education system. It is to be hoped that this will indeed happen, and the Israeli education system will return to its glory days and provide every Israeli child with a quality education.

The writer is the minister of education.