Israel Education Gets Failing Grades


Jerusalem — Tens of thousands of Israelis took the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday night to show solidarity with striking secondary school teaches and to demand sweeping reforms in the educational system. The strike has gone on for more than a month.

Speaker after speaker lamented the sorry state of the nation’s schools and facilities and called for more classroom hours and smaller classes.

Teacher salaries in Israel rank 29th out of 30 countries, according to the Organization for Economic Development (OCED), while Israeli classrooms average 38 to 40 students per teacher, even in the lower grades. Roughly a quarter of university-level instructors leave the country in search of higher pay and better working conditions.

Students attend classes just 30 hours per week on average, compared to 36 hours in 1997. Parents pay millions of dollars for after-school programs that may or may not provide enrichment classes in music, art or computers.

Government funding to schools is slipping, with education representing 8.3 percent of expenditures. The number was 9.3 percent in 2002, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

The rally, which was a true grassroots effort made possible through phone calls and e-mail messages, seemed to capture the gloomy mood of Israeli parents, who feel their children are receiving an inferior education.

“All four of my kids have learning disabilities, and they received minimal help from their schools,” said a Jerusalem mother named Jackie, during a visit to a shopping mall the other day. “Often, if the school says the child is entitled to help, it’s not forthcoming.”

Determined to help her kids overcome their reading and communication issues, Jackie said she paid between $2,000 and $2,500 last year for four hours of private tutoring per child.

“If my parents didn’t help me pay for the tutoring, and for the school trips and hot lunches and longer school day, I don’t know where my kids would be,” she said. “The parents can’t be expected to foot so much of the bill. Isn’t this the government’s job?”

That’s the same question being asked by Edith Everett, a New York-based philanthropist heavily involved in funding Israeli educational projects.

Everett says that she and some other leading philanthropists have recently begun to question how the Israeli government is spending its money vis-à-vis education, and whether well-intentioned American donors are enabling the government to shun its responsibility.

During a recent meeting in the U.S. with Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Everett asked whether it was true, as she had heard, that the ministry revises textbooks every couple of years, and that parents – not the ministry – are required to pay for the books out of their own pockets.

Tamir said textbooks are revamped every five years or so, and that “books aren’t a big expense,” recalled Everett. “This really upset me,” she said. “Poor and even middle-class families can’t afford to pay for books.” She said an Israeli father sitting next to her said he spends almost $400 a year for books for his three children in elementary school.

Everett is also upset that if parents want their children to be in school till 2, 3, or 4 p.m., they generally need to pay for the privilege. (This is only true in the state’s secular and modern-Orthodox systems; haredi schools run till at least 4 p.m, sometimes much later, with most of the curriculum devoted to religious studies.)

“The principal of the school our foundation helped establish asked me to help pay for additional teaching hours,” Everett said. “The ratio of students to teachers is 40 to one, and I understood that without these extra hours, a lot of kids would fall through the cracks. In Israel, parents who can afford it, pay for tutors for their children. Kids whose parents can’t afford tutors will just sink lower and lower unless someone catches them.”

Everett said her fellow philanthropists have only the best intentions, but intimated that they might be “too tied to the government. It’s too easy to be taken in.” She said the government should provide the basics, and philanthropist should contribute to enrichment programs like music or school trips.

Veteran educator Avraham Infeld, who recently took on the role of president of the Chais Foundation, agrees that Diaspora philanthropists “are being asked to do what would normally be covered by the Ministry of Education.

“What surprises me,” Infeld said, “is that the Israeli government is talking about a [fiscal] year not only without a deficit but with a surplus. Frankly, I think if we ask philanthropists to do things the government should be responsible for, it will strain the relationship.”

Infeld insisted that philanthropists do have a vital role to play in Israeli education, “but not at the core of education. Having 30 to 40 kids in a classroom or a livable wage for teachers or a hot meal or a continuation of hours in the afternoon are not issues they should be addressing.”

Lynn Schusterman, co-founder of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation that supports numerous educational programs in Israel and elsewhere, said the state of the Israeli education system “is sinful and the government should be stepping up to the plate.” But she said she “has not seen what Edith [Everett] has seen.”

For philanthropy to Israel to be effective, Schusterman said, it is important to demand matching grants from the organization or institution.

A few years back, she recalled, the director of the Israel Museum, requested a $5 million grant from the Schusterman Foundation in order to refurbish the country’s most respected art repository.

“I said you have to match it with Israeli funds, and not government funds,” Schusterman recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t care how long it takes and in what increments, just raise the money from Israelis.’ It was a partnership, and it worked.”

While the Education Ministry did not respond to phone calls, an official in the Prime Minister’s Office said that “Israel greatly appreciates the ongoing partnership between Israel and the diaspora, with education being the top priority. We hope to continue the close educational cooperation in the future.”