Ministry Acts Against Teachers Over Criticism

The Education Ministry is taking steps against teachers expressing their opposition to the ministry's reforms in elementary schools, according to letters obtained by Haaretz.

Among the letters are those asking the teachers to explain their statements, which are in opposition to regulations prohibiting teachers from criticizing government policy. In one case a teacher was called in for a clarification.

The reform program, known as New Horizon, was agreed on last August by the Education Ministry and the Teachers' Union, whose members are mainly elementary school teachers. According to the reforms, to be instituted gradually, teachers who join the reform will teach an additional six hours a week for additional pay.

Anat Shneider, a teacher at the Tchernichovksy elementary school in Netanya, is strongly opposed to the agreement. She runs an Internet site in which she states that the agreement reduces the teachers pay. She also provides a forum for other teachers to express themselves, in which some recount pressures on them to join the program.

On May 26, the Education Ministry's head of human resources, Tzion Shabbat, wrote Shneider and invited her to a "clarification meeting with regard to publicity you have disseminated regarding the reform agreement." Such a meeting is known to be an administrative step prior to a disciplinary hearing. Shabbat said the information Shneider had released "including many inaccuracies and falsification of the facts," and that "it appears ostensibly that your actions may not be consistent with appropriate behavior of a state employee."

Haaretz also obtained another letter to a teacher, in which the tone was even more threatening than in that sent to Shneider.

Another teacher was summoned a few months ago to a hearing in the Education Ministry after she told a local newspaper that most of the teachers at her school opposed the reforms. She was accused of being interviewed without a permit."

Shneider's attorney, Boaz Benzur, wrote Education Minister Yuli Tamir that the ministry had "opened up a front against Shneider to silence her legitimate criticism of the agreement." Benzur also said that Shneider's "only sin had been not buckling under to political dictates," and that she now found herself "attacked on all sides."

As a result of her action against the agreement, Shneider has been removed from one of the elected bodies of the Teachers' Union. The organization filed three suits against her for libel for monetary damages of NIS 800,000.

Benzur also wrote that the Education Ministry preferred "easy solutions whose purpose was to strike fear into critics."

An individual close to the affair told Haaretz: "Supervisors and district heads challenge prominent opponents of the reform, trying to persuade them to stop their criticism, and when that doesn't work, they do not hesitate to threaten them and shut them all up."

Benzur called the ministry's actions "shameful and infuriating."

The Education Ministry said in response that it "supports full freedom of expression and encourages open dialogue about different issues on the agenda, including changes in the education system." The Education Ministry said that opponents to the reform have been permitted by the ministry to be interviewed, and that such a permit must be obtained by public servants. The ministry first admitted to sending a letter to only one teacher in a case where "there had been a breaking of the regulations governing public servants" and later admitted it had sent such a letter to another teacher as well.