The Bottom Line / Ripping Off the Secular Taxpayer

The Justice Ministry intervened a year ago and stopped the transportation budget for ultra-Orthodox pupils in the Mercaz Hahinuch Hatzmai religious school system belonging to the Agudat Yisrael party.

The schools had received an annual budget of NIS 35-40 million from the Education Ministry for transporting the pupils to their schools. This money was provided as part of the coalition agreements with the ultra-Orthodox factions in the government, and was justified by the need to bus students to schools far from their homes.

But an investigation by attorney Amnon de Hartouch, the head of the department in charge of budgetary support for institutions in the Attorney General's Office, determined that this transportation budget exhibited "a clear preference for pupils in the independent school system," at the expense of those in state schools, of course.

In this way, the Justice Ministry's examination showed that pupils in state schools do not receive transportation to school at the Education Ministry's expense if there is a state school nearer to their home. However, ultra-Orthodox pupils do receive free bus rides, even if there is an appropriate ultra-Orthodox school near their homes.

That is only the beginning. The Justice Ministry also determined that due to a lack of appropriate supervision from the Education Ministry, the transportation budget was handled improperly.

According to the Justice ministry's investigation, the Mercaz Hahinuch Hatzmai funneled some of the transportation funds to bus newly religious students to other schools. The school system, it turns out, was very careful to separate the newly religious pupils from the born and bred ultra-Orthodox, apparently because such newly religious are not considered worthy to attend the regular schools of the system.

Since it was clear to everyone that without such transportation the newly religious would not attend these ultra-Orthodox schools, they went out of their way to take care of the problem. This is how the schools funded, using non-religious taxpayers' money, the network for bringing back children to religion.

Free transportation, it turns out, has a critical role in persuading non-religious and traditional families to switch to networks of ultra-Orthodox schools intended for the newly religious.

And not only free transportation. The free hot lunches provided in these schools for those finding religion - as well as the meals in ultra-Orthodox schools in general - are an important means of making these schools much more attractive to parents, at the expense of the state school system.

In the competition for the hearts and minds of students from the lower classes, such services can be very important, and in this battle the ultra-Orthodox schools have the upper hand.

The reality is that services the state schools cannot afford to provide are passed out freely by the ultra-Orthodox schools. Education Minister Yuli Tamir attributed this in a conversation with TheMarker to the charitable contributions the ultra-Orthodox religious schools receive, since they are semi-private. This allows them accept such contributions legally.

However, the Justice Ministry's investigation revealed that Tamir's explanation is only a partial one at best. Only a small part of such additional services provided by the ultra-Orthodox schools are paid for by contributions. Most of the money seems to come from government funding - the Israeli taxpayer - via the Education Ministry budget.

In some cases, the ministry allocates the ultra-Orthodox specific budgets for these services, thereby clearly discriminating against the regular state schools.

In other cases, the Education Ministry provides the funds required by law, but without checking to see what is actually done with the money. This is why one of the common features in ultra-Orthodox schools is a lack of strict enforcement of the rights of employees and teachers.

The teachers receive lower wages than the law entails or salaries without any required fringe benefits such as pensions. The money saved on teachers' salaries can be spent on the additional services provided by the ultra-Orthodox school networks.

Another trick is transferring the money to pay for even more services, based on the assumption that if - and when - a financial crisis comes about, the coalition pressures will force the state to cover the deficits.

This is how the Agudat Yisrael preschool system recently ran up NIS 120 million in debts, partly due to all the benefits it provided to the new children who joined. In this case the Education Ministry forced the system to implement a recovery plan that included firing teachers as well as closing down preschools that were losing money. But at the same time the rehabilitation plan obviously included an influx of funds from the ministry's budget.

And as if all that is not enough, the Education Ministry has created conditions that enable these ultra-Orthodox schools to legally gain another advantage. The ministry budgets these schools at the full rate, or almost at 100 percent of it, even though the ministry knows that the schools' education expenditures are significantly lower in practice.

This is how in the case of secondary schools the budgets of yeshivas are only 20 percent lower than those of state schools, even though the ultra-Orthodox schools do not have a gymnasium, physics and chemistry labs, as well as a staff of teachers for English, mathematics, science or civics. In the worst case, such ultra-Orthodox schools have one rabbi teaching a hall filled with 300 pupils at the same time.

The result, in any case, is obvious: the State of Israel is investing its valuable resources to make these ultra-Orthodox schools more attractive - at the expense of the state schools.

This is how the state, with its eyes wide open and knowing exactly what is happening, is paying for the movement of students from schools that teach them to be good citizens, serve in the army and go to work to schools that teach only religion instead of making a living.