Education Ministry Plans to Drastically Cut Aid for Ethiopian Israeli School Children

Education Ministry tender states that only children who actually immigrated from Ethiopia will be eligible for facilitators' assistance.

Ethiopian Israelis Employed by Education Ministry.
Moti Milrod

The Education Ministry plans to drastically reduce the amount of aid it gives to Ethiopian-Israeli students, according to the terms of a tender it issued last week.

The tender states that only children who actually immigrated from Ethiopia will be eligible for assistance from the facilitators it is seeking to hire. These facilitators serve as liaisons between Ethiopian-Israeli families and schoolteachers and administrators, to help bridge the gaps of language and culture. As a result, some 6,700 Israeli-born children of Ethiopian immigrants receiving assistance from facilitators will no longer be eligible for the help, except in special cases that will require individual approval.

“Today, we help about 11,000 students a year,” said David Maharat, the director of the Steering Center for Ethiopian Immigrants in the Education System, which operates the facilitator program. “Under the new tender, the number of students will be slashed dramatically, to about 4,300. That means more than half the students we help today will not be helped.”

The new tender also slashes the number of facilitators by half, from about 70 serving some 150 schools to just 35. The remainder will lose their jobs.

In 2013, there were 43,727 children of Ethiopian origin studying in Israeli schools, of whom 14,087 were born in Ethiopia and the remainder in Israel. Although most (85 percent) of these students go on to take the bagrut matriculation exams, only 36 percent pass, compared to a 54-percent pass rate for Jewish Israelis as a whole.

Last week, Haaretz reported that Ethiopian-Israelis working for the steering center were employed as contract workers rather as salaried employees. Their colleagues at the center who help immigrants from France, Spain and the former Soviet Union, in contrast, are salaried employees of the local governments in which they work. The Ethiopian-Israeli facilitators, as a result, do not receive benefits such as seniority pay or educational bonuses, and they have not been given a raise since the center was founded, in 1994.

The Ethiopian-Israeli facilitators want to be hired by the ministry as regular employees, but the ministry has thus far ignored their demands. After the Haaretz report was published, both the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee and the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee unanimously recommended that the ministry accede to the facilitators’ demands and hire them as regular employees.

Instead, not only will the new tender do nothing to improve their employment conditions, but it will also put half of the facilitators out of work.

Moreover, the tender divides the country into three regions — northern, central and southern — and a different contractor can win the tender to operate the program in each region, with no subcontractor allowed to bid for more than two regions. Thus it effectively dismantles the steering center, which coordinates the work of Ethiopian-Israeli facilitators nationwide, and turns the facilitator program from a national one into a regional one.

Maharat said the tender also eliminates several positions at the steering center, including budget director and pedagogic supervisor, that previously provided nationwide supervision of the facilitators’ work.

Finally, the tender would eliminate many of the special programs that the steering center has operated for years. These include a program to give Ethiopian-Israeli students additional academic support that has helped 350 students a year and succeeded in reducing their educational deficit compared to other students, as well as a program to promote intergenerational ties, empowerment workshops, a community newspaper and more.

The two Knesset committees urged the ministry to cancel the new tender. The Society for Advancement of Education, the nonprofit organization that operates the steering center, has said that it will not bid on the tender, to protest the gutting of the center’s role and the dismissal of dozens of facilitators.

The facilitators argue that the ministry actually needs more of them, not fewer. Aviva Mekonan, who has been a facilitator for 20 years, said that each facilitator works with three or four schools, “despite the fact that each school should have a full-time facilitator.”

In a response, the Education Ministry said that it recognizes the importance of the facilitators’ work and is planning to conduct courses in the coming years that would allow the facilitators to receive teacher certification. In the meantime, the ministry said in its statement, it has published a new tender for facilitators in the two main Ethiopian languages spoken by the Ethiopian-Jewish community in Israel, Amharic and Tigrinya, to help in the absorption of immigrant students from Ethiopia.