Only 41% of Israel's First-graders Attend Secular Schools. How Will if Affect the Economy?

The number of first-graders in Haredi schools is rising, while Arab schools are suffering budget crises and there's a drop in college students

Israeli education Minister Rafi Peretz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their visit on the first day of the school year, at a school in the West Bank settlement of Elkana, Sept. 1, 2019
Tomer Appelbaum

On September 1, the first day of the new school year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Rafi Peretz visited a national-religious school in the West Bank settlement of Elkana. Netanyahu talked about building settlements, annexing land, terrorism and Iran; Peretz urged pupils to accept those who are different and not exclude them from birthday parties. Neither mentioned the actual challenges facing Israel’s school system, which currently is lagging behind those of developed nations. Even the center-right parties barely mentioned education in their election campaigns.

In June, more than 126,000 students finished 12th grade. Some 27% were enrolled in the country’s Arab school system, and another 15% in ultra-Orthodox institutions; the remaining 60% attended regular state (i.e., secular) or state-religious schools – the main "suppliers" of manpower to the Israel Defense Forces. Of the latter group, 46% were secular.

This situation impacts various parts of the country's economy. The Council for Higher Education is now seeing a drop in students attending colleges and universities, after years of growth. According to the OECD, not only has Israel lost its status as one of the most educated countries in the West: It’s the only country where the percentage of college-educated youths is smaller than the percentage of college-educated individuals approaching retirement age.

All this could have been avoided, for example, if Israel had invested in the Arab school system rather than depriving it of funding. Another option is for the government to take a bigger role in determining what goes on in ultra-Orthodox schools, which today are controlled primarily by bodies with ties to the Haredi political parties: Shas and United Torah Judaism.

It seems, however, that political considerations have thwarted any effort to find a solution to these problems. Thus, during the decade Netanyahu has been premier, the number of Haredi students who received an exemption from learning core subjects grew by 60%. The government’s resistance to tackling the failures of the Haredi education system has hurt the country as a whole. According to Education Ministry officials, that school system was supposed to have undergone a face-lift years ago.

First graders.

The number of children starting first grade in Haredi schools has doubled in 20 years; in the past decade alone, it rose by 40%. This significant increase is not due just to the high birthrate of this community – an average of seven children per woman – but rather to a trend whereby non-Haredi Orthodox Jews are choosing schools that offer gender segregation and prioritize religious studies over the core curriculum of math, sciences, English and other key subjects. As a result, Orthodox educational institutions are beginning to operate like their Haredi counterparts.

Meanwhile, the proportion of Israeli Arab first-graders in the country's school system has declined. This community has also seen the slowest rise in the number of first-graders during the past 20 years – just 23%.

Last year, only about 41% of all first-graders were enrolled in the secular school system; 15% were in the state-religious framework; and a total of about 44% were in Haredi and Arab schools – specifically, 20.5% in Haredi schools, and 23% in Arab ones.

In 1999, the figures were entirely different. Some 46% of all first-graders were secular Jews; 25% were Arab; and first-graders in Haredi schools accounted for less than 15% of the total, as did those in Orthodox schools. Children may grow up and choose to change their religious affiliation and attitudes, but those attending Haredi schools typically have poorer skills, which limits employment and other opportunities in the future.

Israel’s school system has failed to do the most basic thing: provide quality, equal education to all its students. It offers mediocre education to those in the secular and state-religious frameworks; a poor education to Arab students, in most cases; and precious little to those in Haredi institutions, which currently don’t provide even the minimum needed for their graduates to participate in modern life and the workforce.

The state has been ignoring Haredi education for years, and denying Arab schools their proper share of the budget.

This sorry state is also reflected internationally, such as in the so-called PISA exams; in Israel’s national Meitzav tests; and in the country’s matriculation exams. Haredim don’t even take the first two, and most Haredi boys also do not opt for matriculation.

The OECD has already warned Israel that the Haredi and Arab communities, both characterized by a high rate of poverty, will account for half of the country's population by 2059. An analysis of Education Ministry data shows that this phenomenon is already being reflected among the country’s first-graders.

The situation is particularly extreme in certain locales: In Jerusalem, for example, a mere 2,000 first-graders are enrolled in the state school system – only 11% of the total – whereas 40% attend Haredi schools. Arabs make up another 36% of the city's first-graders, and the remaining 13% go to national-religious schools.

In Tel Aviv, by contrast, 78% of all first-graders attend state schools; 6% go to Arab schools; and the national-religious and Haredi school systems each account for 9% of these pupils.

That said, Jerusalem has three times more first-graders than Tel Aviv.