Israel Plans to Cut More Than $260 Million From Education Budget

Treasury tells Education Ministry told to make savage cuts if it wants to launch new programs.

Ilan Assayag

The treasury is demanding that the Education Ministry engage in massive cost cutting if it wants to launch new programs in 2017 and 2018, after proposing Tuesday that the ministry receive 1 billion shekels less than expected in both years.

The proposed efficiency measures could run to hundreds of millions, or even billions, of shekels a year, and are on top of the 2 percent cut all ministries are being required to make.

Over the past few years, the Education Ministry has received annual budget increases totaling billions of shekels. At the same time, it has been asked to cut hundreds of millions of shekels a year from other parts of its budget. However, in the state budget proposal for 2017-18, the treasury has proposed that the annual increase in the education budget be limited to 620 million shekels ($162.3 million) in both years. Given increasing population numbers, this rise will in effect only allow the ministry to maintain existing services.

If the proposal is approved, the ministry won’t be able to fund any new programs to improve the education system unless it either cuts other programs or ministry staff.

Officials at the Education Ministry told Haaretz Tuesday that it is not currently clear what services will be cut, adding that the treasury left the decision to the Education Ministry.

Naftali Bennett speaks at the Knesset, May 30, 2016.
Isaac Harari, Knesset Spokesperson's Office

According to Channel 10 News, the Finance Ministry had asked that 3,000 teachers be fired, that the school day be made shorter, and that special programs for schools in Israel's outlying regions be cut. The Education Ministry denied the report.

Although cost cutting on the scale the treasury is demanding could force the Education Ministry to fire teachers, at the moment it has no plans to do so. When the ministry was asked to take efficiency measures on a comparable scale in previous years, it refrained from firing teachers, opting instead to cut existing programs.

In any event, the state’s collective agreement with the teachers stipulates that any teacher who hasn’t been fired by the end of May must be employed for the upcoming school year. This means that even if the ministry did want to fire teachers, it couldn’t do so for the coming school year; it could only issue dismissal notices effective for September 2017.

The treasury justified its demand for cost cutting by saying, “The budgetary efficiency of Israel’s education system is among the lowest in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]. Therefore, we’ve proposed moderating the ministry’s budget increase for the next two years, so that the budget will grow on average by about 620 million shekels a year.”

This increase will be enough to continue financing existing programs, including the “significant learning” program launched by then-Education Minister Shay Piron, which cost around 315 million shekels, and current Minister Naftali Bennett’s plan to put a second assistant into every kindergarten, which costs some 400 million shekels. But there won’t be any money left over for new programs.

Altogether, the treasury has proposed an education budget totaling 52.8 billion shekels in 2017, including a 1.2-billion-shekel development budget for building new schools and classrooms. In 2018, the proposed budget is 53.2 billion shekels, again including 1.2 billion shekels for development.

The education budget has grown by about 140 percent since 2000, and has jumped 56 percent over the past five years – a higher rate of growth than any other ministry. This growth was needed to pay for new wage agreements with the teachers; the decision to provide free preschooling for 3- and 4-year-olds; the plan to put the second aide in kindergartens; and an increase in yeshiva funding.

For the past several years, the treasury has advocated streamlining the Education Ministry’s administrative staff, but the ministry has consistently refused and other items were always cut instead. This year, for instance, a plan to expand subsidized summer camps to other grades was scrapped. Instead, the camps were once again open only to first- and second-graders. In previous years, the ministry almost completely eliminated subsidized after-school programs.