Priorities: The Trip to Eilat

Every international comparison shows that Israeli government expenditures per student are higher than in other Western countries. The problem is how the money is being spent: on cumbersome and top-heavy bureaucracy, or on teaching?

Avi Nahmani, a 12th-grade student at the comprehensive high school in Omer, set out on a final battle this week: "When my rights are being crushed, I will fight for them." A financial dispute must not be allowed to prevent the students from being prepared for their matriculation exams, protested Nahmani. The 200 high-school students who demonstrated in Tel Aviv carried placards declaring, "Not at our expense," and "We're sick of this." National Student Council president Shirin Gabai shouted, "We protest what is happening in the education system."

What are they protesting so passionately? The decline in the level of education? Their low level of knowledge upon graduation from high school? The dismal results in the international comparison tests? Not quite. Our students know what is really important: annual school outings, always preferable to superfluous mathematics and annoying English.

Their teachers are not far behind. They assembled the following day for a raucous meeting, after which they sent the students home at 11 A.M. The teachers are also not protesting against low achievements, or the wasteful educational system, but rather the infringement of their pension rights. The fact that the worsening of pension conditions applies to all salaried workers does not interest them. They feel they deserve extra rights.

These two demonstrations illustrate the deterioration in the education system. In 1964 13-year-old Israeli students were ranked first among youngsters from 12 Western countries who were tested in mathematics. In 1998 students this age group achieved the lowest scores. Since then the situation has only worsened.

Education Minister Limor Livnat has some original explanations for this decline. In order to raise the percentage of those who obtain a matriculation certificate, she is allowing students to resit their English and mathematics exams, and take an easier test. In order to improve the efficiency and growth index scores for eighth-grade classes, Livnat has removed the geometry questions.

Whoever said the Education Ministry is not innovative and original?

It is so easy to make the claim - which is exactly what Livnat is doing - that the problem of low achievements is the result of a lack of budget. But that is not true. Every international comparison shows that Israeli government expenditures per student are higher than in other Western countries. The problem is how the money is being spent: on cumbersome and top-heavy bureaucracy, or on teaching?

The Education Ministry sets the policy, oversees its execution and also owns the schools and lords over the teachers and the budgets. The system has too many layers of fat: the ministry's own headquarters, the regional headquarters run by the ministry, and the local authorities' staff and the administrative staffs of the schools. What is the logic, for example, in maintaining parallel systems in the local authorities and the ministry? Why not give the schools administrative and budgetary independence, so that the principal will have both authority and responsibility? Such streamlining process are not being implemented because they entail the dismissal of a whole stratum of municipal and government clerks. Livnat and others do not want to trim the bureaucracy, so they trim the instruction hours.

The Education Ministry maintains seven regions throughout Israel, in which there are hundreds of superfluous workers, because all of the regional offices themselves are superfluous. The main headquarters are enough. The education system has 850 supervisors, most of whom are unnecessary. The teacher-training colleges train too many poor-quality teachers. The cost of the bureaucracy in the Education Ministry is stupefying: up to 7 percent of the budget, while in Finland this cost is just 1.7 percent, and in South Korea it is 1.9 percent - and student achievements are higher there than here.

The teachers' organizations also contribute their share to the inefficiency. They are militant organizations that oppose any progressive change. They oppose rewarding teachers for improvements in student performance, and care mainly about preventing the firing of any teacher, even if he of she is completely unsuitable. This makes it impossible to promote the good teachers and impossible to run any system.

The education system is ailing. It puts the politicians' interest first, placing the students last and using them as pawns for all the other players. This structure has to be turned upside down. The good of the students has to be at the top of the pyramid, with all the other players working toward improving achievements.

Livnat did not implement the reforms necessary for this (trimming the bureaucracy, transferring authority to the school principals, rewarding good teachers) when she took office. She has also not done it in the three years that have since passed. Perhaps now, with pressure rising and achievements falling, she will find the courage to lead the necessary revolution. Then the students, too, will realize that the problem with the education system is not the lack of trips, but rather the lack of studies.