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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
One of the first things Education Minister Yuli Tamir is going to do in her new job is to order state funding for school meals in haredi schools.
Six months ago the the High Court of Justice ruled that the state does not have to finance meals at schools that aren't officially funded by the Education Ministry.
The state program to fund meals in schools around the country caused major controversy when it turned out that the ministry was refusing to pay for the same meals in "unofficial schools" belonging mainly to the haredi community.
The Betar Illit Municipality petitioned the High Court to order the ministry to fund the meals, but deputy court president (since retired) Michael Cheshin turned them down, saying that "if parents choose not to educate their children in state schools, they shouldn't complain about not being entitled to a warm meal as stipulated by the law."
Tamir at the time attacked the ruling, saying "that as long as the state allows different education streams to exist, it can't discriminate between the children, especially as there are no state schools in Betar Illit."
Betar Illit Mayor Yitzhak Pindrus beamed in the Knesset last week, saying that "Tamir will be a great education minister for the haredim. Labor was always the best party when it came to ensuring we had equal rights."
The newly sworn-in Tamir confirmed that she would be solving the problem. "I think that all the children should be getting meals," she said.
In addition, newly-appointed Tamir said on Sunday that she would fight the slated NIS 90 million cut to the education budget, which would result in 600 teachers being fired and 12,000 classroom hours cut by the end of May 2006.
If the cut goes through, the Association of Secondary School Teachers is expected to go on strike either toward the end of this school year or at the beginning of the next school year in September.
The budget cut is part of a series decided upon two years ago that have already resulted in the loss of two class hours per week for 10th- and 11th-graders. During the coming school year, a similar cut is scheduled for 12th-graders.
Tamir sharply criticized the impending funding cut last month, describing it as "a wrong and unnecessary decision," and said it was up to the incoming education minister to plan the next school year, in collaboration with teachers.
Tamir's ability to resolve this crisis will be the first test of her ability to start a new chapter in the relationship between the ministry and the teachers' unions, which reached an unprecedented low during the tenure of Tamir's predecessor, Limor Livnat.
Livnat's time as minister, according to Dr. Nimrod Aloni, head of the Institute for Educational Thought at the Kibbutzim College of Education, was "perhaps the darkest and most frustrating period" the ministry has known.
"Livnat created terrible damage and demoralization in the education system, and a total lack of faith in the country's educators," he said.
"There is now a feeling of optimism and new opportunities," he said, referring to Tamir's appointment.
Aloni's attitude reflects a consensus among the country's educators, many of whom are hopeful that Tamir's appointment heralds a new era at the ministry.
"We are very glad about Professor Yuli Tamir's appointment as Education Minister," said Ran Erez, chairman of the Association of Secondary School Teachers. "Finally, I am seeing a smile in teachers' eyes."
Erez told The Jerusalem Post he hoped that Tamir and the teachers' unions would work together to draft and implement educational reforms.
"Her success will depend on several factors," Erez said. "One is cooperation with the teachers. The other is getting appropriate budgets from the prime minister and the finance minister."
Erez also said he believed that reversing the pending budget cut was a realistic possibility.
"We're talking about NIS 90m. out of a budget of NIS 260 billion," he said. "It's a very small amount of money."