Time to Cancel the State-religious School System

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Students at a Shas-affiliated schoool in Petah Tikva.

Last week, when Israel’s poor results in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) exam was reported, the education ministry announced that a committee would be named - yet another one – that would “leave no stone unturned” to try to figure out how Arab students ended up at the bottom of the rankings. The issues to be reviewed, they promised, would include the curricula and efficacy of allocating resources – areas in which the ministry has generally ignored the desires of Arab citizens, or their needs, for many years. And yet the debate on the incomprehensible gaps between Jewish and Arab students would not be complete without a closer look at how the country’s Jewish religious students enjoy budgetary and pedagogical favoritism, making the picture of inequality even more dire.

It is time to cancel the separate state-religious education system.

The 2018-19 school year saw the highest ever average investment in students at state-religious high schools, at 40,433 shekels per student – 29 percent more than what a student in a state secular high school received and about 65 percent more than the allocation for an Arab high school student. This is no one-off occurrence. Between 2012 and 2018, the budget for religious high school students soared some 55 percent, nearly twice as much compared to the increases made to budgets of the other two school systems. According to Central Bureau of Statistics data, religious schools have an average of a teacher per 5.2 students, compared to one per 10.4 students in Arab education.

The discrimination starts at the earliest stages of education. In the primary schools, which socioeconomically speaking tend to be the weakest, the ministry spent on average of around 30 percent more per religious pupil than per Arab pupil. At the middle school level, the gap was nearly triple.

It’s about a lot more than money. The Jewish religious education system enjoys broader pedagogic autonomy. These schools may reject a teacher or principal “on religious grounds”; to drop subjects like the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin or human and civil rights; to filter out poorly performing students; to demand school book “suitability”; to segregate men from women in institutions of higher learning; and allow the Religious Education Council, whose members are rabbis the right to intervene in academic activity and appointments, in violation of university or college rules.

The separate religious educational system is a remnant of another era, but since its formal establishment in 1953 through the state education law, its existence has been a fact of life. There is no real reason to perpetuate it. No one will deny parents’ rights to influence the education of their children. They are invited to do so, after the mandatory core curricula are completed. Every community would still be able to focus on the values they hold dear and raise their children accordingly.

Segregated schools widen gaps among students of various groups, whether by resource allocation or educational control, segregation anchors separation among these students for their entire lives. These divisions in nationalist religious as well as Haredi schools are one of the causes of classes that don’t perform to standard, smaller more insulated schools, and producing a bloated system full of perks and cushy conditions. The slogans that Education Minister Rafi Peretz, like his predecessors, bandies around, about “providing equal opportunity to every boy and girl,” are aimed mainly at blurring reality – a reality revealed by the latest PISA scores, which showed how much inequality and gaps in the educational system have grown.

The categorical ruling that “separate is unequal” pertains not only to the group discriminated against. It underscores the need for a debate about principles and who is gaming the system. Equalizing allocations and eliminating educational autonomy are the first steps.

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