Whether because their parents choose to send them to a school far from their homes or because the education department of the municipality could not find an institution closer to home, many Jerusalem children attend schools that are far away from their own neighborhoods. Since not all parents have cars and even those who do cannot always take their children to school and pick them up, parents must find an alternative form of transportation to schools. According to regulations issued by the Education Ministry, local authorities must provide free transportation for handicapped children, until they reach the age of 21. With regard to all other children, even if the municipality fails to provide them with an educational solution near their homes, the local councils and municipalities do not have an absolute obligation to pay for the transportation. According to law, the authorities need only make sure that there is some means of public transportation available. In some cases, local authorities do pay for the cost of the transportation, viewing this as a municipal obligation. Says Shmulik David, a lobbyist for education issues for Shatil, the organizational support organization for the New Israel Fund, "In Tel Aviv, for example, the municipality pays the total fare, including the use of public buses. But it doesn't work that way in Jerusalem." Jerusalem is the poorest of Israel's biggest cities and has the largest number of school-age children. The burden of transportation weighs heavily on the individual families and on the municipality alike. "We provide transportation subsidies to children according to socioeconomic criteria," explains Avraham Huminer, deputy director of the municipal welfare department. "The Education Ministry pays for 50 percent of the cost of the transportation. That is, we pay for one-way tickets and we get a refund for half of the money we have put out. That is the best we can do." According to Huminer, the municipal education department purchases some 2,200 bus tickets and organizes transportation for an additional 600 students in the western part of the city. In some cases, the municipality provides bus passes for children who have to take two buses; in rare cases, children who are too young to change buses by themselves are provided with special transportation solutions. "Overall, the municipality transports or pays the transportation for some 15,000 students, including handicapped students and students from east Jerusalem," Huminer says. According to the municipal spokesman, the total budget for transportation in 2006 is NIS 41 million. Of this, NIS 2.6m. is allocated to the national and national-religious schools in the western part of the city, NIS 10m. to children in east Jerusalem, and the rest to children in special education frameworks. Neither Huminer nor the municipal spokesman provided In Jerusalem with data regarding transportation for children attending haredi schools. The educational budget for haredi children, including transportation costs, is separate from the budget for all other children. "We are required to organize transportation only if a school is at least three kilometers from home for children up to the fourth grade and four kilometers for children from the fifth grade on," Huminer explains. "But this doesn't necessarily mean that we have to organize this transportation. If there is a bus line to and from the school, then we have fulfilled our duty." Responds David, "The Education Ministry does not force the municipality to pay for round-trip transportation. But what kind of a message is that for the children? They are telling the children that education is not important for this municipality." The decision to limit subsidization of transportation was made some three years ago, when the municipality was on the verge of bankruptcy. At the time, Yehudit Shalvi, then head of the Jerusalem Education Administration, explained that "in view of the circumstances, we have no choice other than to limit to the minimum the number of transportations and bus passes that we provide. We will provide them only to children who meet the highest criteria of socioeconomic need. The others will have to manage on their own." Even at the time, Shalvi acknowledged that the decision was problematic and she reassured the public that as soon as the financial situation improved, the numbers of children receiving transportation or subsidies would be increased again. David responds, "The municipality entered into a financial rehabilitation program, the municipal finances are in a much better situation than they were and there is almost no deficit - but they still only provide, at most, one-way bus passes and only according to the most difficult socioeconomic criteria." While acknowledging these facts, Huminer emphasizes that the department is merely implementing the directives provided by the Education Ministry. The municipality's failure to provide - and pay for - transportation to schools has a detrimental effect on educational equality. The Jerusalem Education Authority has repeatedly stated that it is in favor of allowing children and parents to choose their schools, irrespective of the place of residence or the location of the school, but as "free compulsory education" becomes increasingly expensive, some parents simply cannot afford to send their children to the school of their choice. Says Ilana, the mother of three children from the Katamonim neighborhood, "We wanted our children to attend a more moderate and more progressive religious school, which is far from our neighborhood. We believe in their ideals. And the children were accepted there, too. But it's just under three kilometers to the school, so the municipality does not provide us with any subsidy or bus pass. It's not reasonable to assume that the children could walk that far each day, especially in the winter or the rain. "We don't have a car because we can't afford one. It would have cost us nearly NIS 20 a day to send our children to school - we don't have that kind of money. "Rich people," Ilana continues, "can organize in car pools or pay for private transportation companies. But we can't. So my children will attend an inferior school that we don't believe in because we are poor. That's not fair." Similarly, Michal from Kiryat Menahem, mother of a fourth grader accepted to the Ofek school for exceptionally gifted children, noted that she could not afford to send her child by bus one day a week to the school, which is located in Ramot. "The municipality tested my child and said that she is gifted. Sure, they offered her the opportunity to attend a school for gifted children. But since we can't afford the transportation, she probably won't fulfill her potential. Is education supposed to be about money?" Huminer says that the municipality does make exceptions in some cases. As an example, he cites the plan to enroll children of Ethiopian background into higher-rated elementary schools throughout the city. The plan would only work if transportation were provided, he says, "so we have three buses to transport these children in both directions every day." In other cases, the municipality has failed to find solutions. Last year, for example, exchanges between haredi and secular schools in Ramot created a situation in which the secular school was simply moved across the street to the other side of the major highway that services the neighborhood. The distance, on the ground, is a mere 300 meters. But Ilanit, mother of two young children aged eight and nine-and-a-half, says that she could not allow them to cross the busy thoroughfare by themselves. "The municipality refused to provide transportation," she says, "because the distance wasn't far enough and our socioeconomic situation is not severe enough." David and the parents who are members of the Association for the Promotion of Fair Education argue that this is yet another example of why socioeconomic criteria, while important, cannot be the only ones applied by the municipality. "The municipality and the education department should always be aware that they, as educational institutions, should convey an educational message - such as, for example, the universal right to an education, no matter what the circumstances," David declares. Social activist Ayala Sabbag says that, at least in the Katamonim districts, the situation is improving. "We used to have terrible fights with the municipality over these issues, but today we have a committee of parents that meets with the education department. And the municipality is listening. We are still far from obtaining what we believe we are entitled to, but at least there is a dialogue." As an example, she notes that the bus passes, once held up for days and even weeks by municipal bureaucracy, are now delivered on time. "A child should be able to go to school," Sabbag concludes. "The child shouldn't have to care about municipal deficits."

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