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Strike Ends but Worries Remain over Israel and Public Schools

Striking high school teachers and the Israeli government may have finally reached a deal to reopen the schools, but the extent of the protracted work stoppage has exposed the depth of a crisis in the country’s public education system that is far from abating.

Before Thursday’s agreement, the teachers had been on strike for more than two months, leaving Israeli teenagers spending most of their autumn hanging out at malls rather than studying in classrooms.

Struggling under the weight of overcrowded classes and a workforce of disgruntled teachers who earn an average of $1,500 per month, the Israeli education system is failing parents, students and teachers, many Israelis say.

Some parents who can are abandoning the system altogether, turning to private schools where possible. Teachers, in search of better pay, are leaving, too. Those who remain are paying the price, parents and teachers say.

“Middle schools are a total disaster,” said Sharon Tischler, one of a group of parents who helped found a private middle school and high school in Ra’anana five years ago. The school, called Neitarim, focuses on pluralistic education and brings together religious and secular students.

“In this country education is straight from the book,” Tischler said. Students “don’t learn to write or analyze; it’s a joke. High school is totally focused on matriculation exams and provides some substance, but there is no breadth of education.”

The signs that the Israeli public education system is in crisis abound.

Israel ranks toward the bottom of the list of Western nations in international education assessments. The same assessments also show that among developed nations, Israel has the widest disparity in academic achievement between wealthy and poor students.

A poll of 2,000 Israelis published this week by Israel 2020, a new social action forum, showed that education tops the list of national problems young Israelis want to see addressed.

Middle-class and upper-middle-class parents of children in public schools commonly send their kids to afterschool tutors to ensure they receive the one-on-one attention and enrichment that is absent from their regular school day.

A growing number of parents are seeking refuge from the public school system in private schools. This has only exacerbated problems in the public system, some argue, because many private schools in Israel also receive government funding and therefore drain resources from the public schools.

At the Neitarim School, parents pay a portion of tuition costs — about $250 a month, considered a significant but not exorbitant sum in Israel — and the government pays a portion. Scholarships are available.

Judith Butler, an education professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says the movement toward parents subsidizing their children’s education through such schools is distressing. She says it widens the socioeconomic gap by favoring well-to-do families over those who cannot afford the tuition and takes pressure off the government to save the public school system.

“Private schools are obvious solutions for the privileged, but they are not a solution and are also a great disadvantage for the non-privileged,” Butler said. “I think one of the messages of both the teachers’ strike and our strike,” she said, referring to an ongoing strike of university professors, “is about reinforcing and strengthening public education.”

Ha’aretz columnist Avirama Golan says the government’s neglect of the education system is so bad it may be part of a plan to push the system toward at least partial privatization.

“For years, students and parents have been abandoned to an ailing education system incapable of functioning,” Golan wrote this week. “The abandonment is so stark that one sometimes suspects it is intentional.”

The semi-private schools, which include many religious schools, she wrote, “are flourishing thanks to funding that comes partly from the government. What little remains of ordinary state education has suffered cutback after cutback. And while the ‘special’ schools provide busing, hot lunches, tutoring and enrichment, the state schools, especially in the periphery, have become ever more crowded, under-funded and wretched.”

Officials at the Education Ministry reject such claims. They say the ministry is seeking to improve the public school system through reforms that include a longer school day and more enrichment courses.

“What we want to do is to make the public schools strong,” Shauly Peer, a spokesman for the ministry, told JTA.

Shmuly Bing, a high school teacher in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion, says the government’s neglect of public schools for private schools is hurting the poorest of students, including Arabs and residents of the rural far north and south of the country.

“The government is acting as if parents who want a good education for their children will have to be expected to pay for it,” Bing said. “The question is whether or not Israel provides a public education.”

The unprecedented 65-day secondary school teachers’ strike ended just hours before a court deadline that would have sent the teachers back to work.

The teachers, who had demanded pay hikes and smaller classes, were promised an 8.5 percent pay raise in turn for adding two hours of private tutoring a week. The deal also included another 5 percent raise over the next three years coupled with a 4 percent increase in wages to cover cost-of-living adjustments. The ministry also pledged to reduce the number of students in each classroom.

Netta Zadok, 16, of Moshav Tzipori in the Galilee said she and her friends grew bored as the strike dragged on. She said she stayed out late, sometimes at dance clubs, and slept until the early afternoon.

Zadok says she supports the teachers because she knows firsthand what it is like to sit in a classroom jammed with 35 to 40 students.

“It’s terrible. There is so much noise, the teacher does not get to each pupil,” Zadok said. “You can’t have a discussion about anything. Instead it’s all shouting, and you see the teacher is also put in a bad position and gets frustrated and also begins to shout.”

Ministry officials hope the deal reached Thursday will help stem the tide of teachers leaving the public school system in search of higher-paying jobs.

Haggai Lavie, who not long ago quit his teaching job to run a youth leadership program in Jerusalem, said he remains frustrated by his experience in the classroom, where large, unruly classes and a lack of time made high-quality teaching virtually impossible.

“For centuries the main treasure of Jewish culture and the Jewish people was always education. It is study that preserved us for centuries,” he said. “We are starting to lose that and I am definitely worried.”

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