Want Preschool for the Kids? Pay Up!

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One of the few practical changes considered an accomplishment of the summer 2011 social justice protests was the addition of publicly funded preschool education. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even presented "free education from the age of three" as one of his government's accomplishments during the recent elections campaign. What can we say? It's a bright, new day. Can it be true?

At first glance, the preschool reform seems to be the government's acknowledgement of working parents' needs. It purports to be a certain change in the agenda, with the understanding that a state that encourages childbirth is also supposed to provide appropriate conditions for families to raise their children.

In practice, a creative solution for funding the preschool reform has been found in Jerusalem: cutting the already pitiful salaries of preschool teachers and assistants.

This is a classic case of divide and conquer: In order to shore up its position with the middle class, the government hurts even more disadvantaged workers. In practice, this is an act specifically targeting women, since in most families, childcare is left in the hands of the woman. It's usually the woman who works part-time, and who stays at home when the child is sick and can't go to school. Moreover, the vast majority of preschool teachers and assistants are women.

Jerusalem City Hall and the Finance Ministry, as usual, are passing the buck on who's to blame. Despite this cynical behavior, among residents themselves there is a sense of solidarity: a group of parents which opposes the salary cut for preschool teachers and assistants. These parents have even demonstrated against the wage cuts and are supporting their preschool teachers' strike against the cuts that began on Sunday.

This story attests to the slew of ills afflicting Israel society and government, including a flawed agenda that puts topics of primary importance – education and health – at the bottom of the list of priorities. The incomprehensible dissonance between the promotion of (Jewish) childbirth and the lack of support for those who are supposed to raise these children (Israel's very brief period of maternity leave is just the beginning) is but one example.

Jerusalem municipal officials responded to Haaretz reporter Nir Hasson's weekend article regarding the wage cuts for pre-school teachers in the city. "The municipality is not preventing interested parents from continuing to operate [pre-schools] in a private framework, and thereby maintain teaching assistants salaries at their previous level," the municipality said in a statement.

Put plainly: We have no issue widening social gaps, and we're saying it loud and clear. To put it even simpler: You're well-off and can afford to pay thousands of shekels a month for a private preschool? Lucky you. You can't afford it? Then your tender children won't just spend the day with 35 other toddlers under minimal supervision. Their preschool teacher and her assistant will also work for peanuts and will probably be replaced quite frequently. Or to make it blatantly clear: You came out into the streets and you think you accomplished something? The State of Israeli spits in all your faces.

How is it possible that just a year and a half ago, hundreds of thousands of people went out into the streets demanding a change in the government's agenda – and what was considered one their few achievements has become a source of ridicule and abuse? Were a few security threats – real or invented – which kept popping up at a very convenient time for the government enough to silence Israelis? And more fundamentally, was the emasculation of the protest movement tied to its organizers' stubborn insistence to remain apolitical and actually distance themselves from the deep problems of Israeli society?

Want free preschool education? Your kids' teacher might have to foot the bill.Credit: Ilan Assayag

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