Israel May Force Fewer ultra-Orthodox Schools to Teach Core Subjects

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Ultra-Orthodox children sit in front of a teacher as they learn the alphabet at the Shomrei HaHoma Torah School for boys in Jerusalem. Nov. 9, 2010.
File photo: Ultra-Orthodox children at the Shomrei HaHoma Torah School for boys in Jerusalem.Credit: Reuters

The education and justice ministries have released a draft bill that would cancel the clause obliging ultra-Orthodox schools defined as “exempt” to teach the core subjects English, math and science.

Exempt schools, run by the more isolationist ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) sects, receive only 55 percent funding but are granted much more independence in setting their curricula. Schools designated “recognized but unofficial” teach core studies and receive the same funding as state schools.

According to the Education Ministry, some 40,000 of the country’s 440,000 ultra-Orthodox school students study at “exempt” institutions.

The bill would replace Clause 10a in the Compulsory Education Law. That clause states that funding for exempt Haredi schools is only granted if they teach 10 to 11 hours a week of core studies. Also, students there must take the Meitzav achievement tests and international assessment tests, and the schools may not discriminate against students based on their ethnic background.

The clause that would replace Clause 10a merely states: “The minister is authorized to set regulations, arrangements and conditions for granting exempt status to an educational institution under Clause 5a, for the operation of such an institution and for the state to participate in its funding, if the minister decides on such funding and to the extent he so decides.”

But Clause 10a, which centrist party Yesh Atid pushed in the previous Knesset, is only due to go into effect in 2018, so exempt institutions have not yet been obligated to teach core studies.

Sources in the Education Ministry argue that Education Minister Naftali Bennett could set strict funding conditions for these Haredi institutions, but given that his deputy minister is Meir Porush of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, this is unlikely.

Thus, for example, the requirement to study English as part of the core curriculum is likely to be changed to the study of “a second language,” which would make Yiddish eligible. (In any case, Yiddish is studied in many exempt schools.)

Meanwhile, the prohibition against discrimination based on ethnic background has been removed from the bill, but it is not clear why.

The new bill was promised to the Haredi parties in the coalition agreements signed in May 2015, but has not been advanced since. Various efforts by Shas and United Torah Judaism to promote the changes as private members’ bills failed, but recently Bennett came to understandings with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and with Porush about advancing a government-sponsored bill.

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