Education Minister Yuli Tamir sharply rejected renowned Tel Aviv University economist Dr. Dan Ben-David's assertions regarding the adequacy of the education budget during a rowdy Sderot Conference discussion of the subject on Wednesday.
Ben-David's assertion that "the problems afflicting the educational system aren't due to a lack of funds" visibly angered Tamir, who fired back: "I wish you would stop saying such things, you're wrong." Tamir even accused Ben-David of unwittingly causing "enormous damage to the educational system."
The frustrated education minister was referring to a cabinet meeting in May 2000 in which Ben-David presented the findings of his research to the government, then headed by Ehud Barak. Since that meeting, Finance Ministry officials have used his figures to push through massive cuts in the education budget, saying his figures proved the problem wasn't a lack of money, but rather an inefficient bureaucracy.
In his presentation, Ben-David used figures demonstrating that public expenditure on education here is equal to spending in other developed countries, based on figures from the Organization for European Cooperation and Development.
The figures, Ben-David emphasized, were not only per pupil (Israel has a much higher percentage of schoolchildren than any other OECD country), but also, crucially, took into account the standard of living in each country, figured by Gross Domestic Product per capita. Based on this dry calculation, Ben-David found that Israel spends the same as other OECD countries in secondary education, and 23 percent more in elementary schools - even following draconian budget cuts over the past few years.
These comments, accompanied by graphs and calculations, triggered the loud argument with Tamir.
Ben-David said Tamir's criticism, and her frustration, were patently unfair, since he did not call for less funding of education, but rather for a reform of the system.
For instance, in comparing teachers' salaries in Israel with those of other OECD countries, Ben-David has demonstrated that Israeli teachers earn between a third to a half less than their counterparts in real terms (corrected for GDP per capita).
So though he believes that enough money goes into the system, he claims it doesn't go to the right places. Enough money is poured into education "for a functioning educational system in a steady state," he told The Jerusalem Post. "But the system needs serious and extensive reform, which will cost a lot of additional money."
The reforms Ben-David has suggested include devoting more instruction time to a core curriculum that would equip Israeli schoolchildren with the skills needed to survive in a modern economy.
While Israel funds more instruction hours than other OECD countries, he noted, only half were devoted to the core curriculum, compared to over 90% in OECD countries.
He has also called on the educational system to require teachers to have an academic degree, and not merely a B.Ed. from the teachers' colleges.
This would serve to professionalize the teachers' corps, raising the level of knowledge each teacher possessed in their chosen field. It would also give them better work opportunities, thereby forcing the system to raise their salaries.
Currently, Ben-David believes, such comprehensive reforms are not being undertaken. Without those reforms, the educational system will continue to fail to produce results concomitant to its expense, he said.