School Year to Begin Today; Arab Kids Already Back

Schools in the country's Jewish education system were expected to start the school year this morning without disruption, with the exception of a handful of local strikes. There are 1.81 million students from kindergarten through 12th grade, representing an increase of about 24,000 from the 2006-2007 school year.

Schools in the Arab community opened yesterday after a strike to protest the underfunding of Arab schools was called off. As part of an agreement between the state and Arab community officials, NIS 75 million will be transferred immediately to Arab local authorities and a committee will be appointed to prepare a school curriculum suited to the needs of Arab students. In addition, 624 new classrooms are to be built annually in Arab communities over the next five years, a committee will be established to examine building issues, and the state will fund 40,000 additional classroom hours, at about NIS 22 million.

Despite the agreement, studies will not resume today at 12 kindergartens and six schools in Arab communities in the Negev to protest overcrowding, safety and sanitation issues.

A National Labor Court injunction issued last month prohibiting a planned strike by members of the Association of Secondary School Teachers kept the Jewish school schedule on track this year.

"This is the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel that the secondary school system is starting the school year under court injunctions requested by the education and finance ministries," union chief Ran Erez said. Union and government officials are to return to court Thursday for a decision on the extension of the anti-strike orders.

According to Erez, no progress on the teachers' demands was made during recent talks with the treasury.

The Education Ministry has set goals for the new school year that include increasing teachers' pay along with their classroom load, bolstering civics classes and promoting a violence-prevention program. The reforms are to be brought into about 1,000 schools over the next two years and are to be operative in all schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade, within six years. Among other means to improve the social climate in the country's schools, the Education Ministry plans to appoint 800 aides to help prevent violence.

In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, more than 246,000 students, including more than 16,000 first-graders, began their school year yesterday, according to Hamas education official Mohammed Abu Shukair. Their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank got a one-day reprieve thanks to a teachers' strike over the length of the school week.