End the Anti-secular, anti-Arab Discrimination in Israel's Schools

The disturbing figures have been known to the ministry for years, but no genuine measures have been taken to solve the problem.

Daniel Bar-On

The figures revealed Monday by Lior Dattel in TheMarker, along with other recent reports about the way the Education Ministry allocates funds to the country’s schools, raise the question of whether the ministry has really made it a goal to provide high-quality, equal education to all Israeli students.

The ministry’s figures show that both elementary and high schools in the state religious system are given clear preference over both the secular Jewish schools and the Arab state schools. Nearly all the elementary schools that received exceptionally high per-student budgets were religious. Funding for each religious student is about 15 percent higher than for secular students (15,300 shekels, or $3,900, compared to 13,100 shekels). In some cases it is over three times higher. Students in Arab schools (13,800 shekels per student) are also discriminated against compared to students in the state religious schools.

Moreover, elementary schools affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties (the Maayan Hinukh Torani and Hinuch Atzmai systems) receive more per student than secular state schools, despite being private institutions that do not teach the full core curriculum.

These figures have been known to the ministry for years, but no genuine measures have been taken to solve the problem. In fact, until Shay Piron became education minister last year, the ministry didn’t even agree to officially publish this data.

One of the main reasons for the funding gaps is that allocations are actually per class rather than per student. This benefits religious schools, where class sizes tend to be smaller.

Piron promised to institute differential budgeting, giving more money to worse-performing schools (that is, for Arabs and secular Jews in the periphery) than to stronger schools. He even pushed through a partial plan which increased classroom hours for weaker students but did not address the ministry’s distorted budgeting mechanism.

Judging by the allocation of funding, one might conclude that the patchwork of independent school systems that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion officially amalgamated into a unified system in the 1950s still exists in practice. But instead of the state nurturing the secular state school system, which is supposed to represent most Israelis, it is allowing that system to fall behind.

One of the most critical tasks facing whatever government is elected in March will be to impose order on the Education Ministry and reexamine its criteria for allocating funds. A state that wants to survive must put the rehabilitation of the secular state school system — that is, making it an excellent system that will be a leader in educating — at the top of its agenda.