Shas Languishes in the Polls, Yet Its Low-achievement School System Is Growing Fast

Until Haim Biton took over two years ago, the Maayan Chinuch Torani school system’s enrollment had been stable at about 36,000. But last year, it had more than 45,000 students

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Interior Minister Arye Dery, with Shas pupils on the first day of a new school year, August 2018.
Yaakov Cohen

Over the past two years, even as Shas has been languishing in the polls, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party’s school system has grown at a dizzying pace. It not only has more students and more schools, but also more Ashkenazim.

The man behind this evolution is Haim Biton, 40, who is both head of the school system and director general of the party. Thanks to his success in the former role, he’s already being talked about as a successor to Shas leader Arye Dery. 

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Until Biton took over two years ago, the Maayan Chinuch Torani school system’s enrollment had been stable at about 36,000. But last year, it had more than 45,000 students. 

Data collected by Dr. Neri Horowitz for a study of the ultra-Orthodox school system shows that much of this growth has come from Ashkenazi students, mostly from various Hasidic sects. Ashkenazim now account for about a quarter of the student body, or some 11,000 students, Horowitz said. 

Haim Biton.
Yaakov Cohen

Maayan Chinuch Torani’s own figures show only 7,700 Ashkenazim, but even that would be a huge increase from just 3,600 in the six years before Biton took office. 

There’s an economic reason for this increase. Most Hasidic schools are defined as “recognized but not official,” which means they only get 75 percent of the state funding given to official public schools. Since Shas’ system is official, its schools are fully government funded.

Under Education Ministry rules, all Shas schools are supposed to teach the same curriculum, including Sephardi religious traditions. But in reality, Horowitz said, the Hasidic schools which join the network don’t adopt its curriculum; they keep their former curriculum and their former staff. The only major change, he added, is that their students start taking the national standardized exam, the Meitzav.

Biton admitted that “we don’t intervene on educational issues.” But he said the Ashkenazi schools do have to accept the Shas system’s administrative and financial rules.

The Ashkenazi schools aren’t the only financial beneficiaries of their entry into the Shas network; Maayan Chinuch Torani also gains, since more students mean more government money for administrators, buildings and other operations. But for Shas, that isn’t the primary benefit. Even more importantly, at a time when the party itself is in trouble, the growing school system seems to show that Shas’ flagship enterprise is flourishing.

Not everyone sees it that way, though. “This reflects Shas’ administrative and political weakness,” argued Dr. Nissim Leon, a sociologist at Bar-Ilan University who wrote a book on Shas’ situation following the death of its founder, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in 2013. “It reflects the collapse of its former endeavor and the crisis of its spiritual and political leadership.”

By “former endeavor,” Leon means that Shas’ school system was founded in the 1980s to enable ultra-Orthodox Sephardi children to be educated in their own heritage rather than studying in Ashkenazi schools and learning Ashkenazi traditions. Bringing Ashkenazi schools into the network won’t further this goal, Leon argued, and may even lead to the entire school system becoming more Ashkenazi, since “the Ashkenazim will want influence, not just presence.”

Biton admitted that he doesn’t want too many Ashkenazi schools, since that “would destroy the system’s character.” Consequently, he plans to accept only a limited number of the dozens of schools that he said have applied to join the network. 

But with that caveat, he thinks the addition of Ashkenazi schools is a feather in Shas’ cap. In the past, he explained, Sephardim were dependent on the Ashkenazim: Having no schools of their own, they had to study in Ashkenazi schools. “Today the wheel has turned – the Ashkenazim and Hasidim want to study with us.”

A senior Shas official also said this development was “a real revolution. The Ashkenazim’s patronization of the Sephardim has ended, and perhaps the opposite is starting to occur.”

Whether Shas schools provide a good education is a different question. Horowitz said that despite some improvement over the last two years, Shas schools score near the bottom on the Meitzav exams in both Hebrew and math. But Biton insisted that this is because the schools accept many “weak students from the periphery,” while proudly noting the improvement since he took over.

In 2014, before Biton took office, the Education Ministry demanded that Maayan Chinuch Torani carry out a series of streamlining measures. An agreement was drawn up in which the system promised to allow closer oversight and shutter hundreds of non-regulation classes. The agreement also stipulated that Ashkenazi schools in the network had to teach the Sephardi-oriented curriculum, and that no new Ashkenazi schools could join unless they pledged to do so.

But according to Horowitz’s research, more than three years later, little of this had happened. Moreover, when Haaretz queried ministry officials, they responded that such an agreement was indeed signed, but they had no idea where it was. 

“I looked for the agreement, and I don’t understand why we can’t find it,” one said. Another said that officials who asked to see the agreement were told not to touch it.

Biton denied that any such agreement was ever signed. And a senior Shas official offered still another version of the facts. He said the agreement indeed existed, and the school system promised to abide by it but never signed it. However, he added, the coalition agreements signed when Shas entered the government in 2015 “effectively canceled the agreement.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, Horowitz believes Maayan Chinuch Torani is in terrible shape, with low-quality teachers, high student turnover and heterogeneous classes, and that only state intervention can solve these problems. Even within Shas, he said, quite a few people are “uncomfortable with the school system’s politicization, its artificial inflation with Hasidim and its imitation of Hinuch Atzma’i,” the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox school system.

The Education Ministry said it has no problem with Ashkenazi students joining the Shas system. It also said that since the agreement with Maayan Chinuch Torani was signed, the number of non-regulation classes has been reduced, and this process will continue. 

The ministry no longer permits classes with less than the regulation number of students to open, aside from in exceptional cases, such as schools in small outlying communities, it added. And it is working to reduce the number of such existing classes by merging schools wherever possible.