Tel Aviv Returning to Middle School Districting, Ending Free Choice Method

Tel Aviv is instituting a new method of districting students into middle schools and high schools, one that relies more on which elementary school students attended and less on the choices of the students and their parents.

For the past 15 years, students finishing sixth grade would choose five middle schools, from any of the city's four districts. Schools with particularly high demand, such as Alliance in North Tel Aviv, would choose students by lottery. That school rejected 60 to 80 students last year.

Starting next month, however, the Tel Aviv municipality will assign every middle school several elementary feeder schools, principals and municipal education sources told Haaretz.

If students or their parents dislike the default option, they will be allowed to appeal to enroll at another school.

Tel Aviv was Israel's first city to drop school districting and give students the freedom to choose their middle school. Other cities, like Jerusalem, followed suit, and still others are planning to do so in the near future.

One of the premises of the program is that competition over students will improve school quality.

Education Ministry director general Shimshon Shoshani, who headed Tel Aviv's education administration, supports forgoing school districting. Over the past several months, the Education Ministry has been considering implementing experimental school choice programs in other cities.

Several sources said the new plan would divide Tel Aviv into several districts. Each would be assigned one middle school and several elementary schools. This would create contiguity between elementary, middle and high school, municipal sources told Haaretz.

Students unhappy with the high school or middle school in their district would be able to appeal and try to enroll in another school.

However, municipal sources said they believed most students would choose schools closest to their place of residence.

"The municipality is tired of the headache produced by the free-choice scheme," a high school principal said. "There are many struggles between parents, some aimed at lobbying the mayor, Ron Huldai. If so many people are unhappy with the situation, you can't maintain it for very long. In a way, the new scheme actually takes us back a bit, to the old system of school districts."

"The free-choice plan allowed all children to choose their schools, but offered no guarantees that they would get in," another principal said. "Kids living next to a popular school in the northern neighborhood would have to travel every day to a school on the other side of the city, because of the draw. The plan resulted in horrendous competition between schools, and a lot of needless stress and anxiety among children."

"With most schools more on less on the same level, choice doesn't really mean much," said Daphna Lev, director of education, culture and sports at the municipality. "The old scheme led to a lot of marketing expenses and competition between schools, without really changing anything. Over the last few years, the scheme has been resulting in registration chaos."

Critics of the new program said it would damage integration between students from the more privileged northern neighborhoods and the less privileged southern ones. Municipal sources, however, argued that this would not be affected, since no one would block children from southern neighborhoods from studying in the north.

"Parents' choice of schools for their children is not based on qualitative or pedagogical criteria, but rather on symbolic impressions - how clean the school is, how nice open house night was, et cetera," said Professor Yizhar Oplatka of the School of Education at Tel Aviv University, who has been advising the Tel Aviv municipality for the past few months. "If the only criteria pushing principals to perform better are symbolic ones, then marketing, not better education, becomes the goal instead."

The Tel Aviv municipality stated in response, "The education administration has been examining the high school registration system, and is seeking to better tailor it to pedagogical needs and the city's demographic changes. The review is being conducted with feedback from everyone involved - principals, education teams, parents and teachers, whose input is needed to lead a successful new program."