Getting beyond the teachers' strike

No system, not even education, can become efficient without competition.

October 17, 2007 21:03
4 minute read.
Getting beyond the teachers' strike

Ran Erez 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Whether the sensational story on Channel 10 claiming that the teachers' strike is politically motivated is right or wrong, politics have been a major factor in the deterioration of the Israeli educational system. Channel 10 reported that reliable witnesses overheard Ran Erez, head of the Secondary School Teachers Organization, telling Menachem Cohen, deputy director of the Ministry of Education, that the chief purpose of his uncompromising strike was to expose Minister of Education Yuli Tamir as a failure so that she could be replaced by Ami Ayalon. The move, Erez claimed, enjoyed the blessing of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Promises had been made, he asserted, that after Tamir's removal the union's demands would be met. "I am leading a social revolution in Israel," Erez boasted. "I convinced my teachers that they are downtrodden, hungry and discriminated-against, and that they cannot back off… under no circumstances will I permit a reform in education." THIS STORY of political cynicism sent shock waves through the political system. Yet as long as education remains a government monopoly, it is bound to function like all other government monopolies - just like the Israel Electric Corporation or the Israel Aircraft Industry - where union bosses fill the vacuum that lack of defined ownership creates, and monopoly power allows them to blackmail the public. The teachers union wants as many teachers as possible as members; they have no interest in seeing incompetent teachers fired. Indeed, it is they who are most dependent on the union bosses. This also explains why the union resists any attempt to pay teachers by achievement, thereby making it impossible to reward good teachers. NONE OF the teachers' justified demands for decent wages and working conditions can be met, however, as long as the huge sums paid by the taxpayer for education - higher rates than in any Western country - are being squandered on the ministry's bureaucracy, and on the salaries of hordes of incompetent teachers. More money will only lead to further deterioration, as it has during the recent decades. But don't look to academia to lead the way. Three recent articles by prominent Hebrew University of Jerusalem political science professors dealing with the educational crisis illustrate the academy's ideological resistance to reform. While attacking "a cynical and indifferent government that has no interest in improving education," Prof. Yaron Ezrachi also lashed out at attempts to institute economic criteria of cost-effectiveness in education because he deemed market forces as anathema to educational "values." Ezrachi forgets that the best universities in America are private and competitive, and that in Israel private schools manage to achieve high matriculation rates for failing high school students. His colleague Prof. Itzhak Galnoor raged against differentiated wages for teachers based on accomplishment by warning his readers "not to be seduced by the siren song of Prof. Milton Friedman's disciples." Galnoor admitted that many professors get salaries for doing nothing, but he is still convinced that competition and achievement are ruinous. And Prof. Ze'ev Sternhal averred that a "ruthless neo-conservative revolution" is the cause of all our ills, including in education. He is in denial of the fact that socialist and statist policies totally dominate the Israeli public sector, and that the educational crisis they have perpetuated precedes the advent of neo-conservative ideas to Israel. WHAT CAN be done? No system, not even education, can become efficient without competition. Allocating the taxpayer's money to schools not through the central bureaucracy but through parents, who would receive educational vouchers which would enable them to exercise choice among schools, would introduce such competition. Higher vouchers could be given to less affluent families. Competition among schools would force them to create a variety of educational approaches, and to strive for excellence. For schools to compete they would, however, need to be allowed managerial flexibility and differential pay for teachers. Yuli Tamir visited Singapore recently and admired its competition-driven achievements. Will she have the political will and clout to introduce competition to the Israeli system? Not likely, unless parents finally wake up and demand a fair return for the huge amounts in taxes they pay for education. Finally, beyond funding, a major problem that bedevils universities - and to a lesser extent high-school education - is what is being taught. The system does not deliver basic knowledge and skills such as a rudimentary knowledge of history or culture, or the ability to write cogently. Instead it inculcates in students a paralyzing left-wing ideology that insinuates, in accordance with Marxist dogma, that enterprise and profit are basically rapacious and exploitative, unworthy of a decent person. It cajoles them to pursue instead a life of virtuous social "activism" in the public sector, in political struggles over government benefits - the pursuit of so-called social or distributive justice (whatever these terms mean). Genuine reform will have to begin with our leftist universities, which have helped to create our dysfunctional, politically-dominated educational system. The writer is director of The Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress.

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