Taking on the Budget / The Wolf in the Education Forest

The new education minister, Gideon Sa'ar, unlike his two predecessors, put his best foot forward. But he was immediately tripped up by one of his own colleagues.

The education budget will not be able to sustain another cutback, even if the treasury labels it "previous commitments." Former education minister Yuli Tamir made extensive commitments, which the education system does not need and, more importantly, cannot carry out. Nor should it have to.

Do the prime minister and finance minister honor every commitment they've inherited from their predecessors?

While the education budget seems big, it is actually very tight. Most, if not all of it, is already pledged to fixed expenses: 90 percent is allocated to teachers' and assistants' wages. Of the remaining 10 percent, three is earmarked for students' transportation and three for the ministry's current expenses. So the education minister does not have more than two to three percent of the budget with which to set his own priorities, if he chooses not to run on "auto pilot."

During Benjamin Netanyahu's four-year term as finance minister and Limor Livnat's as education minister, the education system writhed in torment under 16 successive budget cuts, estimated at NIS 5 billion. Can any body function properly while receiving blow after blow every three months, without time to recover or stabilize?

All the bodies depending on the Education Ministry's budget those years were immersed over their heads in one single task - to survive, to hang on, hold their heads above water until the murky wave passed over. This is not the way to improve a national education system, but to deteriorate it further.

Numbers are confusing and certain officials want to confuse. The results, however, are clear and horrific. Since 2001, every student has been deprived of seven weekly study hours. Since then the picture has become foggy and the arithmetic entangled, but the bottom line is completely clear: the stolen hours have never been returned, the situation hasn't been restored. Students' achievements have plunged accordingly and continuously. Now they expect the Education Ministry to do something about this crisis.

This is precisely the disaster Netanyahu promised to fix in his election campaign. He promised heaven and earth for the education system, even though (as an economics expert) he was perfectly aware of the recession and budget restrictions. But lo, the education system may shortly find itself in a black hole with no hope of escape.

Gideon Sa'ar's cries for help are quite justified. This is no "crying wolf," because the real wolf is stalking the education forest, devouring everything in sight, and it's not skimming the fat - it's crushing the skeleton.

One could always argue that a few pieces of fat remain in the slaughterhouse, needing to be trimmed off. But all the streamlining and economizing measures will only save the small change, while the system urgently needs big money to take big steps, as the new Netanyahu promised from every podium.

The education minister paid me a visit three weeks ago and I did my best to give him good advice. One thing I did not tell him at our meeting, but I'm telling him now: Responsibility is binding, and you must not take responsibility for irresponsible moves.

I know of one education minister who refused to cut the budget in the face of immense pressure from the finance minister - after all, treasury pedagogues always insist on running the education ministry as well.

That obstinate minister hinted that he might resign and the prime minister feared the reckless minister meant it. Today's prime minister would do well to be afraid too.