School Costs for Israeli Families Soar, Stinging the Poor in Particular

Despite an Education Ministry drive to reduce costs, they rose 15% in 2018 and equaled almost a quarter of the state’s spending on education

Israeli students during a lesson.
Nir Kafri

Free public education? Not really – Israeli households spent 26.5 billion shekels ($7.5 billion at current exchange rates) in 2018 covering school-related costs, a 15% increase over 2017 and equal to nearly 24% of the government’s spending on education.

The figure – which was released by the Central Bureau of Statistics on Tuesday, less than two weeks before the next school year – covers a wide range of expenses including school books and other supplies, after-school groups, private lessons and university tuition.

But it probably understates many of the expenses undertaken by households. The Education Ministry, for instance, estimates that parents spent 5 billion shekels in fees that schools are allowed to collect from them, but experts say the figure was probably higher because many schools demand more than the maximum authorized by the ministry.

“The policies of the Education Ministry of collecting more payments from parents is reflected in the data,” said Haran Reichman of the University of Haifa’s Clinic for Law and Educational Policy, who plans to represent parents whose lawsuits challenge the payments as excessive.

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“[The numbers] match with what we already know about the quadrupling of ‘authorized’ parental fees to the educational system over the last decade,” he said. “The figures also show the absence of enforcement of the rule that does exist. It’s amazing we haven’t seen a significant decline in parents covering the cost of preschools after the law requiring free preschools after age 3.”

The Education Ministry has actually sought to reduce out-of-pocket expenses for families in recent years. Besides subsidized preschool, it has introduced subsidized after-school and summer programs and launched a program where families borrow textbooks instead of buying them.

Fees

Still, it appears that the authorization the Education Ministry gives schools to collect money for enrichment classes and other programs has more than outweighed the savings. Three years ago, the ministry vowed to create a timetable for reducing the fees, but it hasn’t yet done so and the authorized fees haven’t gone down.

The Knesset Education Committee recently voted for a symbolic 24-shekel annual reduction after Likud lawmakers defeated objections to high fees by Kahol Lavan legislators. At the top of the scale, the ceiling for fees for 12th-grade students is 5,238 shekels annually – 3,900 of that for enrichment classes and similar services.

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The statistics bureau’s figures come days after the Bank of Israel released a report on labor productivity that attributed much of the blame for Israel’s low level relative to other developed economies on poor worker skills.

It blamed failing schools and in particular the performance gaps between children from the wealthiest and poorest families. Because the schools teach so badly, families feel they have no choice but to pay privately to compensate, the result being that children from the top 25% of income earners score much higher on international exams than those in the bottom 25%.

The statistics bureau’s figures published earlier this year show the extent to which households pay so many out-of-pocket expenses; the numbers go a long way in illustrating the socioeconomic background to the problem.

The stats bureau found that the average family spends 562 shekels a month on education, including private lessons, school fees, cram courses for the high school matriculation exams and school supplies. But the top 20% of income earners spent an average of 1,119 shekels a month, more than four times the 277 shekels of families in the bottom 20%.

The bureau said the spending gap was exacerbated by the fact that whatever money lower-income families were spending was going to mandatory school fees, rather than private lessons and other services that might give their children a leg up. The top 20% of income earners spent 682 shekels on average a month on extras, versus 76 shekels by the bottom 20%.

“The figures show that the ministry is retreating from its responsibility to educate Israeli children and privatizing the process,” Reichman said. “The price we’re all paying comes in the harm it does to the quality of public education and preventing children from families struggling financially from achieving their potential.”

Other figures from the stats bureau showed a slowdown in national spending on education in total. In 2018, it slowed to a 4% rise after increases of 4.7% in 2017 and 5.7% in 2016. On a per capita basis, the pace slowed even more to just 1.5% last year (not counting school construction costs) from 2.4% and 3.8%, respectively, in the two preceding years.

Education spending dropped to 16.6% of all government spending in 2018 from 17% in the three previous years.