The Cost of Closing the Social Gap in Israel

The annual cost of a child who drops out of the education system and joins the ranks of at-risk youth could reach nearly $26,000.

Cheli Goldenberg

About two weeks ago, Michael Bitton, the mayor of Yeruham, walked all the way to Jerusalem from his distant town in the Negev in a march for equality. I am following and accompanying him from afar, and totally identify with the struggle that led him to set out on the march: to endow every boy and girl in Israel with the basic right to participate, to dream, to succeed.

Hasn’t the time come to end the sad ritual that occurs each time statistics are published regarding the number of students eligible to take the matriculation exam (bagrut), the scores on the nationwide Meitzav achievement tests or the scores for the five-unit mathematics bagrut, when there are always those who think that children living in the country’s periphery are less intelligent and less talented just because of where they happened to be born?

Inequality is not only immoral – it’s also not economically wise. In order for Israel to return to growth as a high-tech powerhouse, it must increase the workforce participation rate and the quality of training of those entering the employment market. Israel needs engineers, practical engineers, doctors, scientists and first-class teachers. The potential for all of these can be found in the country’s outlying areas.

About five years ago, the real estate company Gazit-Globe decided to assist the education system in outlying communities in southern Israel. The goal: to provide every girl and boy with an opportunity equal to that of children in the country’s well-established cities. The first community we chose was Yeruham. Four years ago, only one student from the local high school took the five-unit matriculation exam in mathematics. Following a combined effort from the school, the Education Ministry and us, this year four students took the exam and next year 10 students are expected to do so. The potential for engineers, doctors and researchers grew fourfold, with further growth in sight.

We calculated the price of our experiment in Yeruham, Kiryat Malakhi and the other communities where we are active – and we found that it requires about 5,000-7,000 shekels for each student in the town in order to close the gap. This sum is invested in added classes to help weaker students, extracurricular activities, enrichment activities and youth movements. To the best of my experience, the major investment must be in teachers and counselors, particularly in those educators who choose also to live in the community.

By contrast, the annual cost of a child who drops out of the education system and joins the ranks of the country’s at-risk youth could reach 100,000 shekels. Social investment, like what we are doing in full and successful cooperation with the Education Ministry and local authorities, tries to prove that there’s another way.

Philanthropy, however, does not have the capacity to be a sustainable solution for all of the communities that require such investment. We supply the practical means to succeed and it is evident that this works – but ultimately, it is the state that must assume the authority and responsibility for education and providing equal opportunity for all.

The prime minister and the ministers of finance, education and social affairs must make a courageous decision during the current process of approving a two-year budget – a decision to fund the cost of closing the gap for each student in these communities. Concurrently, they must build a mechanism that will gradually put into practice the narrowing of this gap. I am certain the state will find eager partners among business people to take part in this vital project– we’ve already joined.

The writer is the chairman of the real estate group Gazit-Globe.