Spending Gaps Among Israeli High Schools Have Widened as Reform Plans Stall

Religious schools got $1,300 more per pupil in 2015 than secular ones.

11th graders in a Tel Aviv high school taking a test, February 23, 2011.
Nir Kafri

As the new school year began this week, Israel’s state-religious high schools will enjoy the benefits that come from receiving from the state 5,000 shekels ($1,308) more a year per student than their peers in the nonreligious school system.

Compared to Arab high schools, the government allocation per student at state-religious schools will be on average 11,000 shekels more — 25,747 shekels versus 19,704 shekels, according to Education Ministry figures.

High schools in disadvantaged communities will get around 500 shekels a year more for each student than schools in the wealthiest communities, even though they face much greater obstacles to success.

Not only is the gap between different groups of students wide, and often illogical, but it has increased in the three years since TheMarker first revealed the spending gaps.

In the last three years, allocations for state-religious high schools jumped 18.5% to 30,780 shekels, by far the biggest per-pupil budget in Israel. At 17%, ultra-Orthodox schools saw per-student spending grow by nearly as much, but the budget is also among the lowest at just 18,711 shekels.

In Arab high schools, per-capita allocations were nearly as low, although unlike the Haredi schools they teach higher-cost subjects like science. Still, the average budget per pupil in the sector was 19,704 shekels, an increase of just 11.5%.

Meanwhile, the gap between high schools for the best-off and worst-off communities — based on a socioeconomic ladder used by the Education Ministry — nearly closed between 2012 and 2015. Among high schoolers in the strongest communities, spending grew 15.5% to 22,361 shekels in 2015; in the weakest, it grew just 6% to 22,881 shekels.

Three years earlier, weaker communities received about 2,200 shekels more a year per pupil than stronger ones — now the advantage is about 520 shekels.

Tests administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development routinely show that Israeli students perform poorly in reading, math and science, compared to other OECD member states. They also show some of the widest gaps in test performance between students from the strongest and weakest socioeconomic backgrounds.

The gaps spell fewer opportunities for the poorest to go on to higher education or well-paying jobs, passing the discrimination between the wealthiest and poorest down to the next generation.

The Education Ministry has vowed to take action to reduce inequality, but politics and resistance from local authorities has put any plans on hold.

“The ministry sees reducing the gaps as its key and most critical goal and has made it one of the main targets of its strategic planning,” the ministry said. “Regarding high schools, the education and finance ministries are preparing together a differential budgeting model that will provide an appropriate solution to the gaps existing for that age group.”

In fact, the ministry has been working for the last 14 years to help narrow spending inequalities at the elementary and middle school levels, with a policy that favors economically and socially weaker populations, although the results are far from satisfactory.

For instance, while spending in the poorest Arab communities grew in 2012-15 by 17%, versus 13% for the poorest Jewish towns, the gap remains quite wide, Only 16,371 shekels was budgeted on average for Arab pupils while 20,279 shekels was allocated for Jewish ones.

On the other hand, funding for all Arab elementary schools rose 15.5% in the three years and exceeded the average for Jewish secular schools, whose spending grew only 11%, to some 1,500 shekels.

By comparison, at the high school level, funds aren’t allocated by socioeconomic criteria by performance on matriculation exams, the size of the teaching budget and how often high-cost classes in science are taught.

De facto, it means that poorer communities, where fewer students opt for science programs, matriculation exam (bagrut) scores are lower. In addition, teachers are paid less and are less likely to have tenure.

The 2017-2018 Economic Arrangements Bill, supplementary legislation that accompanies the national budget and that the Knesset will vote on in October, calls for sweeping changes, such that the weakest communities would get budgets 50% larger than the strongest ones.

But the Education Ministry says it is not organizationally ready to begin putting the changes into effect in the coming year.

Meanwhile, the socioeconomically strongest local authorities are fighting to keep their budgets intact and say that an extra spending for weaker towns should come out a budget increase — not from reallocating money from the current budget, as the treasury proposes.

Education Minster Naftali Bennitt also faces resistance from his the religious voters who make up the core constituency of his Habayit Hayehudi Party.