Education Ministry Ignores Knesset Demands to Cancel Controversial Tender

Two committees told ministry to freeze plan to downgrade program that assists Ethiopian-Israeli students.

Ilan Assayag

The Education Ministry has ignored a demand by two Knesset committees to cancel a tender that would completely revamp a program to aid Ethiopian-Israeli students and reduce the number of pupils able to use it. The tender is due to close tomorrow.

The program employs counselors, known as facilitators, to serve as liaisons between Ethiopian-Israeli families and schoolteachers and administrators, in order to help bridge language and culture gaps. For the past 21 years, it has been run nationwide by the Steering Center for Ethiopian Immigrants in the Education System.

But the ministry recently decided to slash the number of facilitators, sharply reduce the number of students they assist and hire two or three contractors to run the program in different areas of the country, rather than having it be run by a single organization nationwide.

Both the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee and the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs demanded last month that the ministry freeze the tender, but the Education Ministry refused.

The organization that currently runs the Steering Center has said it won’t even bid for the new tender, since it opposes the changes in the program.

Aside from objecting to many of the proposed changes, both Knesset committees demanded that the facilitators be hired as regular ministry employees rather than as contract workers.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett responded that it was too late to cancel the tender, because “freezing the tender is liable to damage the ministry’s preparations to absorb new immigrants, which would contradict a recent cabinet decision on the matter.” Nonetheless, he added, the ministry is preparing a plan to help the facilitators complete the coursework necessary to obtain teaching certificates, after which they could be absorbed into the regular education system.

But that gesture failed to satisfy lawmakers.

“I think it’s absurd that the Education Ministry is ignoring the committees,” said MK Avraham Nagosa (Likud), who chairs the immigration committee. “Our position is that educational initiatives aimed at immigrant students need great expertise – which the bodies operating these programs today have – and that firing dozens of people and hiring new ones, while discarding this professional knowledge, would be a disaster.”

In response to the ministry’s refusal to cancel the tender, dozens of employees of the Steering Center demonstrated opposite the ministry yesterday. The workers plan to erect a protest tent and refuse to leave it until their demands are met.

“This is a tender whose goal is send home some 70 men and women, among the best sons and daughters of the Ethiopian community, who work as facilitators,” said Steering Center director David Maharat. Instead, he argued, they should be hired as regular ministry employees.

“We demand the cancellation of the tender, which has only one goal: eliminating the Steering Center and firing all its workers ... and transferring the facilitators’ work to two or three new contractors who will recruit new facilitators on humiliating terms of employment,” as part-time or hourly workers, he added.

As Haaretz reported last month, the new tender states that only students who actually immigrated from Ethiopia will be eligible for assistance from the facilitators. That means some 6,700 Israeli-born children of Ethiopian immigrants who currently receive facilitator assistance will no longer be eligible.

Moreover, while the program currently employs 70 facilitators who work with about 150 schools nationwide, the new tender halves that number to 35.

The tender will also eliminate several staffing positions in the Steering Center and essentially end its role as a nationwide coordinator by dividing the country into three regions – north, center and south – and hiring a different contractor to run the program in each region.

In 2013, there were 43,727 Ethiopian-Israelis in the state school system, including 14,000 who were born in Ethiopia. Although 85 percent took the matriculation exams, only 36 percent passed – compared to a 54 percent pass rate among Israeli Jews overall.

The ministry responded that the facilitators were previously hired by local governments or through outsourcing companies, and their training wasn’t always appropriate to the students’ needs. But it said it recognized the importance of the facilitators’ work, and therefore devised the new model.

Moreover, it said, it plans to open teacher-training programs for facilitators, which will enable them to join the education system as regular teachers.