When Public Schools Act Private

Private education is a legitimate right. What is less just is creating 'private-style' classrooms in public institutions.

Several weeks ago, with a mere whimper and far from the eyes of the media, one of the most conspicuous struggles waged by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar in recent years came to an end. This was his battle against the private Havruta school in Emek Hefer, and in a broader context, against private education as a whole.

One can understand Sa'ar; no one likes to broadcast his failures. At the same time, the battle he led in favor of bolstering public education was, in fact, an escape from dealing with the true problem: the spread of some of the characteristics of private education to the public schools. In particular, public schools have recently begun to choose students selectively and to take large sums of money from the parents. From this point of view, the private schools have already won. The virus has gained control of the body.

Havruta already drew fire at its inauguration three years ago, largely because of the scandalous fees it took from the parents - some NIS 30,000 per year. The Education Ministry refused to give it a license, claiming that among other things, it was violating the principles of integration and harming the nearby public schools by attracting the outstanding students.

Both a committee of appeals and the district court rejected the ministry's claims and granted the license to the school. The ministry appealed to the High Court of Justice, and the judges hinted that if the Education Ministry wanted to curtail private education, it would have to do so through legislation in the Knesset and not via regulations, as Sa'ar was attempting to do. When the justices asked ministry representatives why they were not going through legal pathways to deal with the issue, they responded, "The minister made his calculations."

Here is a possible answer: Legally banning private educational institutions in order to forbid the selection of students for reasons of principle would likely obligate the ministry to impose the same criteria on the schools for which it is responsible. This is not merely a matter of a sure-fire conflict with the ultra-Orthodox educational system. Such a law would also mean the state would have to put an end to "special" public school classes for science, computers, communications and other spheres that are attractive mainly to well-to-do families. A war with the Haredim is one thing. But why initiate a move that is likely to be opposed by the large group of upper-middle class parents throughout the country?

No one in the ministry knows how many of these special classes exist in the public school system. Some elementary schools have them, but the phenomenon has really begun to spread at the junior-high level. Acceptance to these classes is not egalitarian and not open-to-all. The selection can be direct: relying on grades and examining so-called talents and "inclinations" (codes for ensuring a homogeneous social background of participants ), or indirect: the parents' ability to pay an additional NIS 1,000 per month (in the best-case scenario ). Students in the special classes have better learning conditions, including more study hours and sometimes, less crowded classrooms.

Since there is no authoritative information, the relevant figure taken from a survey conducted a year and a half ago by the association of local governments' educational departments reveals that special classes exist in more than half of the state's public schools. The ministry's lack of knowledge about the extent of the phenomenon cannot be excused merely by bureaucratic encumbrance or difficulties in keeping on top of all 4,300 schools in Israel. The problem goes deeper than that.

It is a fact that the opening of these special classes - unlike, let us say, the private schools - is not anchored in any regulations. The lack of rules, and the fog that envelops these data, are not a mistake; rather, they are a deliberate policy. Private education is a legitimate right. What is less just is creating "private-style" classrooms in public institutions.

Sa'ar and the people in his ministry who have pretensions of strengthening public education are uprooting its egalitarian essence. Sa'ar found it easy to open his eyes widely in shock over the Havruta case. It is more difficult to deal with the lack of equality being created by the system for which he is responsible.