Budget Cuts May Leave Thousands of Special-needs Kids Without Appropriate Schooling in Israel

With a $140.6 million budget shortfall, some 350 new classes to accommodate special-needs children will not be opened, in addition to cuts on the number of assistants, therapists and teaching hours

Special-needs children at a school in Modi’in, Israel, August 8, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Education Ministry is warning about a serious deficit in the budget for special education, which could delay the provision of services to thousands of children who have not yet been placed in an appropriate school for the new school year beginning early next month.

The Finance Ministry counters that a demand for additional funding right before school starts is in violation of previous agreements and a breach of acceptable work norms.

The main crisis involves children who were diagnosed with special needs relatively late in the last school year, after the Education Ministry placement committees had already completed their assignments of children for the coming year.

The regular procedure in such cases is to submit a request to the exceptions committees, which meet at a later date. But as a result of the looming budget shortfalls, ministry district directors have refused to convene these committees other than in particularly urgent cases, thus denying many children the right to an appropriate educational setting or hours of help from an assistant or therapist.

Yael Kotliar, who is entering first grade, was diagnosed in June as being on the autistic spectrum. “I started to contact Education Ministry officials to clarify my options,” says her mother, Alona. Because the placement committees had already met, she was hoping to get an exception committee date. “They told me that it didn’t pay to set a date, since they couldn’t place us in an appropriate framework, anyway, because there is no more room.”

A.’s son, a child of preschool age, was also recently diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. He was advised to try to enroll him in a special preschool for children with communications difficulties, but he won’t be getting in any time soon.

“It’s inconceivable that the committee doesn’t even meet to determine if he’s eligible or not,” says A. “This is an Education Ministry body that’s meant to be professional, but instead of dealing with the needs of the child it convenes on the irrelevant basis of occupancy in educational frameworks.”

The Education Ministry says that the 2019 budget doesn’t account for a sharp 3.7 percent increase in the number of children diagnosed with special needs between the last and upcoming school years. By way of comparison, the population of all pupils has grown by only 1.7 percent this past year.

The Finance Ministry, however, says that the growth in the number of special education pupils has been steady, and the Education Ministry should have adequately prepared a budget to accommodate these children. It said that between the 2017 and 2018 school years the special education population grew by 4.8 percent, and it has doubled in the past decade.

“Everyone knew there would be an increase,” said attorney Ayelet Dayan, director of the rights advancement branch at Alut, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children.

“We warn about this every year. How is it that only in the middle of August do they remember that they lack funding for the pupils? These are rights to which these children are entitled to by law, it’s not a game.”

The Education Ministry says the budget shortfall is 490 million shekels ($140.6 million) and that this means that some 350 new classes needed to accommodate special needs children will not be opened. It will also reduce the number of assistants, therapists and teaching hours. The ministry says it will also have trouble funding medical assistance for children with severe allergies, whose numbers have also grown steadily in the past decade, requiring additional budgets of some 30 million shekels a year.