Thousands of ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel could be in line for significant funding increases if they include core subjects such as Hebrew, English and math in their curricula.
The plan is part of a Finance Ministry initiative to promote core studies in the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, educational system. For years, the state’s attempts to promote such studies had ground to a halt.
The proposal includes major incentives for thousands of Haredi schools operated by NGOs, which currently receive very little state funding because they exclude the core subjects from their curriculum, focusing instead on religious studies. However, the program will neither mandate core studies nor impose sanctions on schools that do not provide such instruction.
Tens of thousands of students, out of the 490,000 in the ultra-Orthodox educational system, study in these schools. The program affects mainly boys schools, as Haredi girls generally study a broader range of subjects. A State Comptroller report in 2020 indicated that 84 percent of boys in Haredi secondary schools and 56 percent of boys in elementary Haredi schools do not take core studies.
Hundreds of the schools included in the program are small, independent schools that receive a small amount of funding compared to the networks affiliated with the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which have a combined enrollment of about 150,000 students.
The program is projected to cost around 250 million shekels ($79 million) over the next four years. The overall budget for ultra-Orthodox schools in 2022 totals some 3.1 billion shekels, with the schools not affiliated with the Haredi parties receiving about 650 million shekels. In addition to financial incentives, it includes pedagogical changes in the ultra-orthodox school system: recruiting additional supervisors, training teachers, and developing study programs suitable for the Haredi community.
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The state has difficulties supervising both the number of hours of core studies and the quality of instruction for these subjects. The Finance Ministry is trying, for the first time, to formulate a performance-based method of remunerating participating schools in the program. It will require schools to not only declare that they teach core studies, but also to prove through various means that they are doing so. However, officials have yet to work out fully how to evaluate student achievements in Haredi schools, which is a complex and sensitive issue.
Haredi leaders find the idea of performance-based remuneration for core studies acceptable. For one thing, it does not enforce core studies on its educational institutions. Moreover, it will enable them to be evaluated based on student achievement and accumulated knowledge rather than the number of hours allocated to core studies.
Some Haredi leaders also buy into this approach because it leaves the ultra-Orthodox schools under the ownership of NGOs affiliated with the various Haredi streams and does not force them to be incorporated into the state-run ultra-Orthodox stream, where core studies are fully part of the curriculum.
The Finance Ministry also prefers this method of remuneration, despite its inherent disadvantages, as attempts in 2013 to force ultra-Orthodox schools to adopt core studies failed. The Haredi school system is the fastest growing educational stream in Israel, accounting for some 20 percent of all Israeli students. Education Ministry officials believe current political circumstances and awareness within the Haredi community about the importance of core studies for employment have created an opportunity to promote core studies through financial incentives rather than enforcement. The program, if it goes ahead, will also complement the government’s decision from August to reduce the exemption age for military enlistment to 21, a move that will enable more Haredim to enter the labor force. However, the government’s decision did not include changes to the ultra-Orthodox educational system that would enable yeshiva graduates to join the labor market.
Today, even if schools declare that they provide instruction in core subjects, the teaching of these topics is not particularly effective. Teachers lack proper training, books, curricula and motivation to teach the materials effectively. The Finance Ministry hopes the new program will encourage profound changes in the Haredi educational system.
However, the process of performance-based remuneration is extremely complicated. The majority of ultra-Orthodox schools do not participate in education ministry evaluation tests such as the Meitzav standardized tests for core subjects, or newer evaluation tests. Most do not participate in international tests either. Thus, the state has no idea about the level of the students studying in these programs.
The Finance Ministry is considering whether to condition the program’s financial incentives on evaluation tests, but doing so requires the establishment of unique core studies evaluation tests for Haredim. Education Ministry officials are also critical, fearing that when such tests impact budgetary allocations, that fact could incentivize cheating and lead to a phenomenon of teaching for exams only. Government ministries are examining other means of student evaluations.
The finance ministry hopes to solve in this way another major distortion in the ultra-Orthodox educational system: The current system favors educational institutions affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and UTJ over ultra-Orthodox schools belonging to other streams – and not according to the actual scope and quality of core studies taught in those institutions.
The state’s method of budgetary allocation currently remunerates Haredi schools based on the number of declared hours of core studies taught. The rate of funding ranges from 55 percent to 75 percent compared to state schools, typical for privately-run schools.
However, under a 1992 amendment to the Budget Foundations Law the two largest ultra-Orthodox educational networks, the Shas-affiliated Ma’ayan Hahinuch Hatorani and the UTJ-affiliated Independent Education Network, receive full state funding even though they are not state-owned. In contrast, Haredi schools not affiliated with Shas or UTJ are only eligible for up to 75 percent of the state funding rate. As a result of this relatively low funding, these schools suffer from financial difficulties that affect the quality of study, physical conditions in the schools, and teacher compensation. With no option to boost state funding, they lack financial incentive to invest in core studies.
The situation impacts other communities, like the Arab educational system’s church-run schools, which also receive lower funding than state schools. The government is thus expected to discuss as well an amendment to the Budget Foundations Law, among other things. However, such a step could lead to objections from Shas and UTJ, which are likely to battle the government on the issue.
The Education Ministry budget in recent years has created an even larger gap in favor of Ma’ayan Hahinuch Hatorani and the Independent Education Network, whose combined annual budgets are around 2.5 billion shekels. Currently, each student at schools belonging to these networks receives a budget of 15,000-17,000 shekels a year, while the state allocates just 5,000-6,500 shekels per student per year for other ultra-Orthodox educational institutions.
As a result of this gap in budgetary allocations, some Haredi schools that do not teach core studies or do so only partially have joined in recent years the Shas-affiliated and UTJ-affiliated educational networks. Thus, they’ve been able to improve their financial status without improving their core studies or even teaching them at all.
One sect that stands to gain from the planned changes is the Belz Hasidim, the second-largest Hassidic community in Israel. Belz schools teach few core subjects, but recent reports assert that Belz leaders are in talks with the education and finance ministries to formulate a deal enabling Belz schools to receive larger budgets in exchange for core studies. The alleged arrangement would emphasize performance-based remuneration. The Belz schools are not part of the major ultra-Orthodox networks due to internal Haredi disputes. If an agreement is reached between the state and the Belz leadership, its schools will be included in the broader program that the Finance Ministry is assembling.
Losing their shine
The scope of core studies in the ultra-Orthodox educational system ranges from zero to 100 percent. In 2013, at the initiative of then-Education Minister Shay Piron, a state Haredi educational stream was established within the Education Ministry, fully run and financed by the state. These schools employ teachers who have undergone full training and teach core studies in full. The students undergo evaluation testing by the Education Ministry.
Still, only 2.6 percent of Haredi students in learn at state schools, which account for just 3 percent of ultra-Orthodox schools. The state ultra-Orthodox educational stream has not received the support of recent governments and has been the subject of resistance from some members of the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox community, most of whom wish to keep their schools independent.
Education officials are concerned that given the program currently being put together – which will enable the allocation of additional budgets without joining the state stream – the attractiveness of the state ultra-Orthodox stream will decline further. On the other hand, sources within the Haredi educational system claim that the state Haredi stream has exhausted its growth potential due to internal resistance within the community. Therefore, they say, there is no choice but to encourage core studies through other means.