Education Minister Shai Piron presented the “School of Summer Vacation” initiative to the Knesset Education Committee Tuesday to mixed responses, with haredi MKs accusing it of discrimination.
The charge came as tensions between haredim and non-haredim are at a peak, with many ultra-Orthodox speaking of a “war on religion” following recent legislation they view as attacking their way of life.
The education minister was set to provide a routine presentation to the committee about the plan he unveiled last November, where state schools will offer programs for some 230,000 pupils during the first three weeks of summer break.
But the committee discussion was abruptly interrupted when MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) entered the room and shouted at the education minister, “You hate the ultra-Orthodox. Your child will have a summer camp and our children will not.”
When Gafni refused to calm down, Education Committee Chairman MK Amram Mitzna asked him to leave the meeting.
MK Meshulam Nahari (Shas) brought up the issue of the “discrimination” between students in state-recognized though unofficial haredi educational institutions and those in state education who will be included in the initiative.
To this, Piron replied: “I do not want to exclude you, and I invite you to join state education tomorrow morning. We will keep the unique character of your education movement.”
According to the program, activities for students in first and second grades will be held in state schools from July 1-21 on Sunday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Each class will hold a total of 28 students, with special education classes holding seven students.
An estimated 200,000 firstand second-grade students nationwide are set to participate in the summer school program this year. Some 30,000 thirdand fourth-grade students from the geographic and social periphery will also participate.
Next year, the education minister said he hopes to expand the program to include thirdand fourth-graders, and in 2016 the initiative aims to include kindergartens and fifth-graders throughout the country.
Piron told the committee that partnership agreements with local municipalities, regional councils, the Welfare Ministry and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews had already been signed.
“We cannot impose on a mayor to open this program,” he said, but “we will create a body of support and assistance for municipalities wishing to bring the summer school program to their town.”
For municipalities with lower socioeconomic standing, the three-week program will be free of charge for parents, and as the economic standing of the cities increases so do the costs for parents which vary from NIS 300 to NIS 450 per child.
“Not all parents can send their children to summer camps, and our aim is to reduce the financial burden on parents,” said Piron at the meeting.
The Education Ministry estimated the budget for the initiative at around NIS 200 million per year and NIS 600 million for all three years of the program.
Teachers interested in working for the first three weeks of summer vacation, along with students in education, interns, university students, soldiers and youth will all participate as educators in the program.
Michal Cohen, director-general of the Education Ministry, said the summer vacation program would not compete with the “attractions of summer camps.” She said the initiative’s goal was to provide an educational framework for children during the summer and to provide equal opportunities for education and leisure activities.
Parent organizations attending the committee meeting expressed support for the program, but called on the Education Ministry to shorten school vacation days.
To this, Piron replied, “It is impossible for the entire matter of vacations in Israel to be the business of educational professionals.
Maybe we need to add additional vacation days for parents; that is a state decision pertaining also to the Economy and Finance ministries, and is not just under the mandate of the Education Ministry.”
Mitzna congratulated Piron and Cohen on the initiative and said “you deserve all the blessings, and it is evident you paid attention to all the details.”
He added that the real test will be the implementation of the plan in local governments, and he urged the parent organizations to express to parents the importance of the program.