Olmert: We Added NIS 13 Billion to Education, Will Reduce Class Sizes to 32

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says that the cabinet will add over NIS 13 billion to the state education budget, but others are questioning his pledge.

"The government that I head is dramatically increasing the education budget as never before," said Olmert. But MKs Reuben Rivlin (Likud) and Zevulun Orlev (National Religious Party) said that these additions are not mentioned anywhere in the 2008 state budget.

Olmert noted that between 2006 and 2008, the education budget rose by NIS 3.7 billion. He promised to build 8,000 new classrooms - 40 percent of them in the Arab sector - in the next five years, at a cost of NIS 4.6 billion.

The prime minister also promised to continue adding classrooms, beyond the 8,000 mentioned above, "until we reach 32 students to a classroom. Today the standard is 36 students per class on average, 40 at most, which is intolerable, we can't go on like this. We'll get it down to 32."

However, Olmert also asked the teachers' union to agree to give principals the authority to fire poor teachers.

Regarding the ongoing strike by senior university faculty, Olmert said his government "does not accept dictates. I am not willing to conduct negotiations by force, with an ultimatum."

But the prime minister also called on the lecturers to agree to arbitration over the issue of salary erosion, and expressed willingness to accept a faculty member as arbitrator.

The chairman of the Coordinating Council of Senior Faculty Associations, Zvi HaCohen, said in response that Olmert was misled by the Finance Ministry. HaCohen said the striking teachers were willing to go into arbitration to determine the extent of their salary erosion in the past, but that their offer to arbitrate "was rejected out of hand."

Among other things, the striking lecturers are conditioning their agreement to arbitration to a 16-percent salary hike.

"We expect the prime minister to become involved in the conflict immediately," HaCohen said.

Olmert came into conflict with United Torah Judaism when he said that if the ultra-Orthodox MKs were allowed to oversee Haredi education, "you would destroy it because you would hurt each other."

Olmert noted that he had "helped Haredi education in the places where it was needed more than all of you put together. Only a non-observant Jew like me could have taken care of the Haredi education system fairly."

"There are people who say that Olmert can't run a state," MK Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) said in response.