On July 1, 1.5 million children from preschool through middle school will throw down their backpacks and celebrate the start of summer vacation.

For most, the end of the school year symbolizes a carefree time. For most parents, it represents a disruption in their daily routine, as they have to find alternative and often expensive daycare for their children.

Education Minister Shai Piron along with Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, announced the launch of the School of Summer program last November.

The program aims to provide a low-cost alternative to the private summer camps for an estimated 180,000 children in first and second grades, as well as to some 30,000 children in third and fourth grades living in the geographical and social periphery.

According to the program, activities for children will be held in state schools from July 1-21, 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.

In terms of cost, parents will be asked to pay a minimal fee to enroll their children into the program. The charges will vary from municipality to municipality and were determined according to a scale developed by the Central Bureau of Statistics, ranking districts across the country into clusters on a scale from one to ten, according to their socioeconomic situation – 10 being the highest.

In municipalities ranked in clusters one to four, the program will be free of charge, while in clusters five to seven parents will be charged NIS 300 per child. For children in clusters eight to 10, the program will cost NIS 450.

“This is not just a pilot program, it’s a revolution,” Piron said in November.

“Education includes every child everywhere, all year round,” he added, “The ‘School of Summer’ [plan] gives an appropriate and optimized solution to the needs of teachers, parents and students.”

“We have committed ourselves to profound changes and we will continue to work for it with determination and professionalism,” Piron said.

Despite his best intentions, Piron’s School of Summer program has come under harsh criticism in recent months by the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors, as well as by parents.

While the project caters to pupils in the state school system, several ultra-Orthodox and Arab MKS are claiming “discrimination” of students in the state-recognized, though unofficial educational institutions who were left out of the program.

Earlier this week, the public complaints office in the State Comptroller’s Office announced it was examining the alleged discrimination, following a complaint filed by MK David Azoulay (Shas).

“We politely and respectfully tried to contact the [education] minister, and he did not even bother to reply, apparently this is his education,” Azoulay told the Knesset State Control Committee on Tuesday.

“Piron boasts of his reforms to promote equality, but they are all blatantly discriminatory and ugly.”

The committee convened to discuss the issue of discrimination and heard from ultra-Orthodox MKs as well as from MK Haneen Zoabi, who said the program was an “act of vengeance,” against schools that did not want to join the state school system.

Yehudit Kadesh, director of the elementary school division at the Education Ministry responded that the program includes some 250 local authorities, encompassing state and state-religious schools as well as 16 ultra-Orthodox schools, and Druse and Chersky schools within the public school system.

“This is not discrimination because there is representation from all sectors,” she said. “The registered but unofficial schools can’t participate because in advance the program was designed for the public school system, but any school is welcome at any time to join the public education system.”

Dorit Morag, the Education Ministry’s legal adviser, told the committee the state has always favored public education, with the backing of Supreme Court rulings.

According to her, Section 11 of the State Education Law provides the right for the Education Minister to “determine budgets and procedures,” under which he can also decide on zero budgeting.

Orit Koren, the Deputy Attorney General concurred, adding that the summer camp program is not part of the formal curriculum, and giving preference to public education is legitimate by law and backed by court rulings.

A spokesman for the Education Ministry echoed these sentiments and told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, “We want to strengthen the public school system in Israel.”

According to the spokesman, there are tens of ultra-Orthodox and Arab state schools included in the program and there are other secular private schools not included in the program, as such he stated, this was not a case of discrimination against any population group in society.

“On the contrary” he said, “we are calling on all schools to join the public school system and enjoy these benefits.”

Working parents were also critical; although the School of Summer program provides a low-cost solution to day care, it only runs until 1 p.m.

Most parents work much longer hours and they will have to continue paying a supplemental charge for afternoon programs run by the local municipalities, the cost of which can vary greatly.

In Modi’in, (cluster 8) the cost for participation in the School of Summer program stands at NIS 450. Though, the extra cost for children extending their stay to 4 or 4:30, including a hot meal, stands at NIS 675. In Herzliya, however, which is also categorized as cluster 8, participation in the afternoon program can reach up to NIS 1,000.

“Some of the municipalities have rallied to the program and they deserve a round of applause,” said an Education Ministry spokesman, “others have not, and unfortunately we do not have a say in how much each municipality charges for their afternoon programs – this is an issue for the local authorities.”

In Hod Hasharon, the School of Summer program costs NIS 450, while the afternoon program costs NIS 800, a total of NIS 1,250.

Due to the high costs of the afternoon program in certain municipalities, some parents prefer to send their children to private camps, which often provide more fun-filled activities at a small additional cost.

“The difference between the two programs [School of Summer and private camp] was not that big and so we decided to add just a little bit more and send our daughter to the private camp,” said Sharon Vol from Hod Hasharon, who has a daughter in the first grade.

According to Vol, their yearlong afternoon day care program also offers a summer camp program operating until 5 p.m. “We don’t know how the School of Summer program will turn out or who will be on staff, but we know and trust the staff [at the private camp] and it also includes more fun activities including a pool,” Vol said.

Despite this sentiment, the vast majority of parents have applauded the Education Ministry initiative and rushed to enroll their children in the program.

According to the Education Ministry 75 percent of first and second graders in the state education system have enrolled in the School of Summer program. Additionally, some 5,000 teachers and principals and some 5,000 students pursuing a degree in education have signed on to staff the program.

In Jerusalem, the largest school system in the country, 70% of the city’s first graders enrolled in the daycare program, which included 9,200 children from the western part of the city and 2,823 children from east Jerusalem.

While Kfar Shmaryahu and Savyon (cluster 10), two wealthy municipalities, registered some 80% participation.

“Despite some criticism, we have had tremendously positive feedback from parents regarding the program,” the education ministry spokesman said. “The numbers really do speak for themselves.”

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