Israeli Ministry's New Strategy Could Deny Disabled Students the Special Ed They Need

An Education Ministry document obtained by Haaretz describes a plan to deny eligibility for special education to pupils suffering from issues such as developmental delays, borderline intelligence and learning disabilities

Students raise their hand in a classroom at the Hand in Hand bilingual school in Jerusalem.
Kathrin Harms / KMW

Advocates say that in the next few years tens of thousands of pupils with disabilities who are now entitled to special education will be placed in regular schools that will not be given the resources they need to absorb them.

An internal Education Ministry document obtained by Haaretz describes a plan to deny eligibility for special education to pupils with very common problems with high to medium function. These would include behavioral problems, emotional disturbances, developmental delays, borderline intelligence and learning disabilities. Some 80,000 pupils with these disabilities now study in special education frameworks.

Organizations that advocate for the disabled agree that integrating such children into regular schools is preferable to sending them to separate institutions. The preferred method, they say, is through integration tracks, in which pupils entitled to special education services spend as much time as possible in regular classes with individual adjustments like aides and various therapies.

But that’s not what the Education Ministry is planning; the pupils to be moved to regular classes will not all be getting special education. Some will get therapeutic services from a dedicated budget that the ministry allocates to the schools, and which will be increased by around 200 million shekels ($57.7 million) starting next year. But the Bizchut disability rights organization and the Justice Ministry’s Commission for Equal Rights for People With Disabilities say that budget is insufficient and that teachers don’t have the necessary training to deal with these children.

The commissioner for equal rights for people with disabilities, Avremi Torem, said, “There is a real fear that following this bill children with disabilities who until now got services from a special education framework will be removed from it without proper solutions.”

Avivit Aharonoff, director of Bizchut’s education department, said the decision to mainstream children in this fashion “might sound progressive, but it isn’t real integration, but abandonment.” She said the gaps that will ensue between these pupils and the rest of the pupils in the classroom in terms of learning, behavior and social integration will send them right back to the special education system.

The Education Ministry move, in the framework of a proposed amendment to the Special Education Law, is being made primarily because of a sharp increase in the number of children eligible for special education; between 2014 and 2018 the number of pupils in special education has increased 33 percent, to 246,000 children. The amendment is being prepared by the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee in preparation for its second and third readings.

The Education Ministry confirmed that the amendment is meant to help cope with the dramatic increase in the number of pupils eligible for special education, but said estimates of how many children will be moved out of special education programs are baseless.

“Not every child with an emotional problem has to be in special education,” a senior Education Ministry official said. “Today there are a lot of kids sitting there who don’t need it, while children who need special education aren’t getting it.” She added that pupils who are transferred to regular frameworks will get the support they need, as will the teaching staff.

Another senior official said, “The ministry will allocate 200 million shekels a year to regular schools for training teaching staffs, paramedical therapies and guidance and therapy hours for the new pupils who are admitted.”

The Education Ministry said in response, “The data of recent years proves clearly that the ministry ascribes great importance to special education. ... As part of the reform led by the ministry, large budgetary resources will be allocated, inter alia, to paramedical hours, emotional treatments and the construction of treatment spaces within the school.”