Naftali Bennett: Unlikely Champion of Arab Education

Few expected the new right-wing education minister to advance his predecessor's scheme to help weaker populations. Still, when it comes to educational equality, he's got his work cut out for him.

Education Minister Bennett, left, with Finance Minister Kahlon.
Olivier Fitoussi

For a moment, a glance at the chart showing comparisons of child-to-staff ratios at preschool facilities in Israel and other developed countries is enough to startle you. The figures for 2012 place Israel in last place, far behind the others, with 27 children per staff person. And that's in comparison to the average of 14.5 among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of countries with developed economies.

The chart shows that the situation for 3-year-olds in Israel is so poor that the ratio is almost double that of the developed world as a whole. But closer attention to the details reveals a less depressing situation: The OECD teacher-pupil data relate only to licensed nursery school teachers. When the global organization relates to all members of the staff at these facilities, including aides, the ratio in Israel drops to 12.8, just about the same as the OECD average.

So we may not be in such horrible shape when it comes to our preschools, but you cant ignore the distinction between the quantity and quality of staff in these places. Israel allocates only one licensed nursery-school teacher to a class of up to 35 three-year-olds. In other OECD countries, however, that same teacher deals with only 14 children, an improvement in terms of quality time spent with them.

The gap in the quality of personnel assigned to work with these young children is also reflected in funding for preschools in Israel. As of 2012, the country was spending a mere $4,058 per child, compared to an OECD average of $7,446.

Since 2012, the situation of preschool teachers in Israel has changed dramatically, however. The law providing for free education was extended to include 3- and 4-year-olds, following the social justice protests of the summer of 2011, and the recommendations of the Trajtenberg committee created following those demonstrations. Now such children are entitled to attend municipal preschools for free. A large number attend facilities with as many as 35 youngsters per class, each of them staffed by a teacher and an aide. Thats the same ratio required for older preschoolers.

What about staff?

But the government expanded free education to include 3-year-olds without making the appropriate adjustments in staffing. And thats even without taking into consideration the fact that dealing with these little ones, some of whom may not even be toilet-trained, clearly demands more adult attention. One can learn a thing or two about the inferior care offered in the country's early education facilities from the comparative data: Even if from a numerical standpoint, things seem all right, from a qualitative one they are still sub-par.

Now, however, Israel is carrying out another leap forward with respect to its preschools. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, together with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, announced this week that a second aide would be added to each classroom in these facilities. There is no doubt that the addition of another staffer will improve the care the 3-year-olds receive, and will also help boost Israels child-staff ratios to meet the norms of the developed world. This move will also greatly improve the quality of education.

Even though there will still only be one licensed preschool teacher in classes of up to 35 children, with two aides present that person should be able to devote a lot more time to educational and professional matters. This should also, to a great extent, help close the gaps in the quality of the preschool education offered to Israeli 3-year-olds, as compared to that in the developed world in general.

The addition of a second aide is great news, but what is equally important is how the plan Bennett has presented will be carried out: It will give preference to preschools serving low socioeconomic populations. In poor locales, most of which are Arab, the Education Ministry scheme calls for 90% of the cost of the additional aide to be paid for by the state, rather than the local government. In well-off locales, the municipal government will underwrite only half the cost.

To grasp how important this approach is, one must look at another set of numbers. A glance at the performance of Israeli students on international academic performance tests is also enough to give a person a fright: In the 2012 PISA exams (the OECDs Program for International Student Assessment) Israel is in the penultimate place when it comes to the disparities between its strongest and weakest students – a gap of 347 points, compared with an OECD average of 301.

Unlike the data on preschools in Israel, where closer examination shows the gap with the developed world not to be so wide – a second and even third look at Israels standing on the PISA exams doesnt offer any comfort. On the contrary, the data only reflect part of the problem. They show a huge difference between various categories of Jewish students, and a near-intolerable disparity in the performance of those students as compared to their Arab-Israeli counterparts.

In fact, however, the disparities in Israel in this regard are actually worse because students from ultra-Orthodox schools – where core subjects such as math and English get short shrift – dont even take the PISA exam at all, and are thus not included in the statistics. If they were, the gap between strongest and weakest students would be more extreme, even behind the developing countries in this survey, including Qatar, Vietnam, Jordan, Peru and Kazakhstan.

Economic and strategic threat

Educational inequality in Israel is a tremendous problem and it is the root of the broader social inequality that prevails here. In practice, this is the factor that most threatens the unity and prosperity of society. Welfare-oriented societies are based on the concept that citizens are provided an equal opportunity, that children will be given an equal opportunity to be successful, without regard to the family into which they were born.

So what are the prospects for an Arab-Israeli child, who is way behind his Jewish counterpart in reading, for instance, to enjoy equal educational opportunities? And what are the chances that ultra-Orthodox Jewish children will break out of the cycle of poverty that many of their families are mired in?

Educational inequality is an economic and strategic threat in Israel. What is particularly distressing is that the situation – reflected in almost every PISA test that Israel has participated in for a decade – has not been addressed up to now. On the contrary: Educational policy over the years has only exacerbated disparities and inequities, by means of discriminatory funding to the disadvantaged and weaker populations. Official Education Ministry data show that the funding for Arab education is 10% to 22% lower than the average for Jewish students, even though Arab academic performance is generally much lower and thus demands more support. Instead of helping the weak, therefore, we have been helping the strong.

When it comes to the ultra-Orthodox community, due to its political power and ability to squeeze money from the government, the situation is reversed. In the two leading ultra-Orthodox school systems, funding per student is exceptionally high, but it is not used to promote the study of core subjects.

The strategic threat this situation poses to Israels future began to be addressed for the first time by the last education minister, Shai Piron, who devised a five-year plan to increase funding to Israeli Arab schools by a billion shekels (about $260 million). At least part of that sum was supposed to be taken from state religious schools, which currently get the most generous support, with their gender-segregated classes and time devoted to prayer.

Piron managed only to implement the first year of the scheme, and the assumption has been that now that he has been succeeded by Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party, the plan would be scrapped. Bennett, after all, is closely associated with the national-religious school system.

So his announcement of the decision to put a second aide in preschools classes, so as to give priority to weaker populations, was indeed important. Even more significant, however, was his commitment to continue with the five-year plan that will give priority funding to Arab schools.

Bennetts choice to help Arab-Israeli children, even at the expense of Jewish children in the state-religious system, is truly praiseworthy. The support of the Union of Local Authorities for the plan – even though its implementation will come at the expense of governments in well-to-do locales – is also welcome.

If we continue down this path, with the national interest trumping political and personal interests, we may be able to start fixing some of the countrys serious problems.