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High schoolers across the country may get to realize every teenager's dream of a never-ending summer vacation as the perennial threat of a September teachers' strike is becoming more of a reality. While the students cross their fingers and hope for any extra freedom they can get, the year-long battle between the Secondary School Teacher's Organization and the Finance Ministry has become increasingly heated, with mutual accusations exchanged via the media. As a result, classrooms may remain as empty for next Sunday's scheduled first day of school as they are now in these waning days of summer break.
High school classrooms, that is. The rest will operate under a new reform, signed by the National Teachers Union (NTU), which represents about 80 percent of the country's teachers, and the Finance Ministry.
Last week, talks between the SSTO and the Finance Ministry became stalemated, bringing a year's worth of discussions to a screeching halt. New progress must now wait until ministry officials involved in the negotiations return from their own summer holidays, according to SSTO spokeswoman Keren Shaked.
In a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post, Shaked implied that the Finance Ministry's inconvenient vacation timing indicated a lack of interest in her union's cause: "Obviously, there is no one to negotiate with. They don't care. They don't want to improve the education system... You have to give the teachers the opportunity to make it right."
The Finance Ministry spokesman's office denied this allegation. "[SSTO head] Ran Erez stopped the negotiations," said a representative. "They don't want to speak with us. It's not considered to be vacation time for anyone in our ministry. And to prove that, we are currently sitting with the NTU."
THE PRESENT difficulties are part of a larger atmosphere of discontent in the education system as a whole. Last spring, some 250,000 university students, outraged over tuition hikes and a budget slash of NIS 1 billion, staged a five-week strike that included violent clashes with police. Both sides paid the price. Students were forced to remain in school an extra month to make up for lost classes, while the Finance Ministry is currently in the process of reinstating the lost funding, after promising to reintroduce the capital over the next five years. According to their agreement, tuition rates will remain frozen throughout the coming year.
Meanwhile, Shaked said that high school students are being short-changed by the cutbacks, claiming that today's graduate receives only an 11th-grade level of education, compared to what he or she received six years ago. She attributed the declining quality of education to dwindling classroom hours and an ever-growing student-to-teacher ratio - sometimes topping 40:1.
Shaked also said that teachers are growing frustrated with what they perceive to be a lack of viable retirement options. As schools seek younger teachers to bring "fresh" energy into the learning environment, older teachers feel they need better pension plans.
Those teachers who not retiring, Shaked added, are fighting for higher salaries, as they have not seen a wage hike since 1996. In fact, the goal is to double teachers' salaries over the coming five years.
Erez issued an official statement Monday expressing ire at what his union perceives as the Finance Ministry's turning of a deaf ear to its request, resulting in an official rejection of the ministry's most recent attempt to reach an agreement over the salaries.
"Under absolutely no circumstances do we intend to receive cents or crumbs that the Finance Ministry is ready to toss to us," Erez wrote in a letter to his union's members.
Shaked described the climate of the negotiations with the Finance Ministry as follows: "They just said 'no' to each and every suggestion we put in front of them."
However, in an official statement, the Finance Ministry countered, "It is unclear to us why the SSTO decided not to join in the educational reform [agreed to by the NTU]... In the agreement, teachers would get a substantial pay raise [and] greater opportunities for promotion."
Asked why the SSTO has not embraced the reform the way the NTU has, Shaked conceded that though one of the organization's demands would be met by the reform - more classroom hours - the other, payment commensurate to those extra hours, would not.
"It's more work. [The reform] does not improve the value of the hour," she explained, though she did not specify the actual amount earned per hour, either before or after the reform, despite being asked repeatedly to do so.
She also insisted that the reform accepted by the elementary school teachers does not suit high school teachers, who have more material to cover.
It doesn't look like they'll be starting to cover it come September, however, since Shaked insisted that the strike is definitely on.