Israel's Secular Jewish Education Reverses Shrinking Trend, Study Shows

In lower grades, proportion of Israeli students going to secular state schools actually grew state since parents feel religious schools have become 'too extreme'

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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High school students in Tel Aviv, November 2019.
High school students in Tel Aviv, November 2019. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

After years in which the secular Jewish state education system shrank while the Arab and ultra-Orthodox school systems grew, that trend has reversed over the last decade, according to a study published on Monday.

The study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel found that in 2019, 42 percent of students were enrolled in secular public schools, the same proportion as in 2010. And in the lower grades, the proportion of students in secular state schools actually grew. For preschoolers, it rose from 37 percent in 2010 to 41 percent in 2019, while in first through sixth grades, it rose from 40 to 42 percent.

The findings, based on Education Ministry data, defied the Central Bureau of Statistics’ prediction that the proportion of students in secular state schools would continue to shrink, after having plummeted from 51 percent to 41 percent during the first decade of this century.

Between 2000 and 2010, there was a sharp rise in the proportion of students in the school systems, from 13 to 18 percent. But the rise was more modest over the last decade, the study found, from 18 percent in 2010 to 20 percent this year.

The proportion of students in the Arab school system also rose sharply during the previous decade, from 21 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2010. But over the past decade, this proportion actually edged down, to 24 percent in 2019.

Throughout these 20 years, the proportion of students in the state religious school system remained stable, standing at 15 percent in 2000 and 14 percent for the last decade. This happened even though the religious Zionist community has a higher fertility rate than the secular community and its school system also attracts proportionally more immigrants: Immigrants account for 8 percent of students at state religious schools, while the percentage at secular state schools is near zero.

Nachum Blass, the author of the study, said the main reason the state religious school system hasn’t grown is a steady process of secularization among the religious Zionist community, which has led many parents to transfer their students from state religious schools to secular ones. In addition, he said, many parents now send their children to secular schools even if their level of religiosity hasn’t changed, because “state religious education has become too religiously extreme for them.”

In addition, some religious Zionists have been leaving the state religious school system for ultra-Orthodox schools.

As for the rise in the proportion of younger students at state secular schools, the study found that one key reason is a rise in secular Jewish fertility rates. Blass also posited that the expansion of free compulsory education to 3 and 4-year-olds, which took effect in the 2015-16 school year, contributed to an increase in the proportion of students in secular preschools at the expense of ultra-Orthodox ones, which until then had been much cheaper.

Another contributing factor, though a much smaller one, is the rise in the number of studying in secular Jewish schools rather than Arab ones. A study by the Knesset’s research center found that the number of Arab students in the secular Jewish state school system rose by 27 percent over the last five years, from 3,300 students in 2013 to 4,200 in 2018.

The Taub Center study said that of the 1,466 schools in the state secular system, Arabs comprised more than 10 percent of the student body at 24 of them.

The Central Bureau of Statistics had predicted in recent years that the Arab and ultra-Orthodox school systems would continue growing, with the result that the secular and religious state school systems combined would be teaching fewer than 50 percent of all students by the end of this decade, creating “an economic and social crisis.” But in fact, these two school systems currently account for 57 percent of all first-graders, the Taub Center found.

“The gap between the forecasts and reality requires us to realize that our ability to predict future developments is limited,” Blass concluded.

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