The Preschool Defense Forces

Civilian service volunteers cannot be an alternative to salaried workers; the Education Ministry must demand additional funds.

Education Minister Shay Piron has found a magic solution to the shortage of teachers’ aides in preschool classes, a shortage that has intensified since schooling was made free from age three in accordance with the Trajtenberg Committee recommendations. Under Piron’s plan, which will cost 44 million shekels ($12.5 million), some 1,200 national and civilian service volunteers will be assigned to public preschools, primarily those serving 3- and 4-year-olds, which have become more numerous and crowded since the reform went into effect.

During a debate about a month ago in the Knesset Education Committee, an Education Ministry representative said some 6,200 preschools are underfunded and short-staffed. The budget for preschools and teachers comes from the Education Ministry, while teachers’ assistants are paid by the local authority. Many of the understaffed classes are in relatively poor communities that cannot fund enough teachers’ assistants.

But Piron’s solution is mistaken for several reasons. First of all, national and civilian service volunteers cannot be an alternative to salaried workers; they are not meant to be free replacements for teachers’ assistants, whose salaries are low and whose work conditions are difficult, and who have been struggling to improve both for several years.

Second, at a time when a softened version of a military draft law – popularly known as the “law to equalize the burden” -- is being legislated, Piron’s proposal highlights the privileges enjoyed by civilian national service girls, the vast majority of whom are religious.

Unlike their secular sisters, whose service the Perry Committee, which drew up the military draft bill, actually wanted to extend (a recommendation that didn’t make it into the bill), the national service girls in Piron’s track will enjoy civilian conditions but get the same rights and benefits female soldiers who do full service receive. What’s more, they will get professional training and even academic credit should they choose to study education after their service.

The Education Ministry must demand from the treasury the additional funds needed to recruit teaching assistants at full salary; this is the education system’s obligation to the children, their parents and its employees. National service girls must bear a burden of service similar to that of women who serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Service in preschools is not exactly a step in that direction.