With the start of the 2009-2010 school year rapidly approaching, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar laid out his vision for the academic year during a Knesset Education Committee meeting Wednesday morning, drawing both praise and criticism for the various new initiatives he announced.
While Sa'ar began the meeting by lauding the Education Ministry's efforts in adding "tens of thousands of classroom hours" for mathematics and English in the country's schools, the minister also said that his office was working extensively to encourage IDF and national service recruitment and would financially reward schools with high recruitment levels.
Sa'ar added that schools with excellent achievements in the social sphere - such as the fight against binge drinking - would be rewarded financially as well.
"We will develop a model which will compare each school with its previous achievements, while taking into account socioeconomic data. We will also examine social issues such as the prevention of violence, use of drugs and alcohol and the number of graduates enlisting in the IDF and for national service. We will also develop a model for remunerating these schools in order to push for improved teaching, including improvements among teachers, principals and secretaries," Sa'ar said during the meeting.
But the minister's remarks regarding military and national service elicited a swift outcry from liberal pressure groups who warned of discriminatory undertones associated with his plan.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel issued a statement saying that the right to education and equality was a fundamental one, which could not be conditioned on military service.
"[Sa'ar's] initiative raises great concerns regarding a further deepening of discrimination in education already applied to the Arab sector, which is exempt by law from security service."
Additionally, the Abraham Fund, a group that works toward coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel, also issued a statement expressing concern with Sa'ar's initiative.
"The intention of the Education Ministry to budget schools according to the number of students drafted to the army borders on invalidated discrimination that would bring about an increase in the already substantial gap between the Jewish and Arab education systems in Israel."
Arab MKs were outspoken in their condemnation of the plan, with Hadash MK Muhammad Barakei (Hadash) accusing the Education Minister of "jumping on the militaristic, racist bandwagon for nothing but political gain.
"Sa'ar should address dropout rates and the fact that there aren't enough
classrooms, instead of acting like chief education officer," Barakeh said.
MK Taleb a-Sanaa (UAL-Ta'al) echoed Barakeh's statements, saying, "It seems as if the minister has been infected with the mock patriotism virus, and has chosen populism instead of dealing with the real problems facing the education system."
Former Education Minister and current Labor rebel MK Yuli Tamir joined in the criticism of Sa'ar's plan, arguing that "the Lieberman-Netanyahu government continues to discriminate against all of the minority groups in Israeli society. First it was preventing Israeli Arabs from representing Israel on the international stage, and this morning, we are told that the minister has decided to reward schools according to the draft measurement."
Tamir added that she believes that Sa'ar's new policy "will only increase the gap between Jewish and Arab schools."
Former IDF Spokeswoman MK Miri Regev (Likud) argued that Sa'ar's policy could actually inspire minorities to take a larger part in national service. "I am sorry that the Arab public does not take part in civil service, and this should be corrected," she said.
Wednesday's committee meeting also focused on the introduction of a new subject in school curricula: Israel's culture and heritage. The topic will be taught from the fourth through the ninth grades beginning in 2010. It will include the topics of Judaism, Zionism, and the history of Israel.
Sa'ar said he also intended to reinforce the secular and religious state-sponsored school system, which under previous education ministers suffered because private schooling was prioritized. "We shouldn't wake up in a few years to find that only the poor go to the public system, while those with means study privately," he said.
Sa'ar also said that if there were greater participation in youth movements, there would be less juvenile delinquency.
"If more children go to youth movements there will be less crime on the streets. The key point is that education is an investment, not an expense. In a meeting dealing with crime in Israel, I explained that a true drop in the crime rate will be a result of investment in education."
Sa'ar also addressed Israel's poor showings in international education indexes. "It is dangerous for a politician to set measurable goals, but if we don't, the system won't progress by itself. We have set for ourselves a goal of a five-point improvement in every field," he said.
Regarding the fight against school violence, Sa'ar said teachers and principals must receive support.
"I want to tell parents, 'We are used to backing our children and complaining that the school was in the wrong, but things won't work without authority. Such ultra-liberal methods have long been abandoned elsewhere because they ruin the education system.
"Principals should run schools, not parents. A line should be drawn between involvement and interference. The day after tomorrow, a ministry memo dealing with this issue will be published. It will include not only norms and sanctions, but also issues of dialogue with the pupils," Sa'ar told the Knesset committee.
Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.