school strike 2.
(photo credit: Channel 2)
The Secondary School Teachers Organization announced yesterday that it would strike on Wednesday, following months of "drawn out" wage negotiations with the Finance Ministry.
Teachers' basic salaries are indeed abysmally low, starting at around NIS 2,800 per month. Even teachers with a Master's degree and 15 years' experience earn just NIS 7,202 per month, about NIS 3,000 less than a similarly qualified social worker in public service, according to union figures.
Internationally, Israel's $18,000-a-year salary (in 2004 figures) for veteran teachers compares miserably to an Australian average of $45,000, France's $33,000, and even Mexico's $21,000, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development figures. Locally, teachers earn 25% less than the average Israeli worker. Worse, according to National Teachers Union figures, overall pay has eroded by some 20% since 1995, following the one-time wage increase by the Rabin government.
All this is part of a desperate crisis in Israeli education, where teachers often don't earn enough and students have been performing worse each year in international and IDF rankings since the 1970s. But the very urgency of the problem makes one wonder why the SSTO has chosen its current bizarre path.
This same battle was successfully fought last year by the elementary school teachers' National Teachers Union. In May, the NTU, representing 80% of Israel's teachers, reached an agreement with the Finance Ministry on a new wage scheme for elementary school teachers that would raise salaries 30% faster than in the previous agreement. The reform also gave more power in personnel decisions to school principals and demanded a longer work week from teachers. NTU head Yossi Vasserman, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the agreement "historic" and "groundbreaking." Even criticism of the agreement centers on its slow implementation (it will take three to five years to introduce), not the basic step forward for teachers' working conditions.
Whether it is historic or not, at the very least it demonstrated that the Finance Ministry doesn't carry the sole blame for stalled negotiations over wage reform with the country's other large teachers' union, the SSTO. It is significant that the NIS 5 billion set aside by the Treasury for implementing the reform plan includes the funds for the SSTO to join the agreement.
Contrary to common belief, there is no direct correlation between teachers' salaries and the quality of education. When the Rabin government gave teachers a vast across-the-board 50% pay raise in the mid-1990s, the following years did not show a rise in test scores, which continued dropping steadily as they have been doing for decades. Israeli schoolchildren in the 1960s delivered excellent scores at the top of international rankings despite a system with far fewer resources and a country less wealthy or well-organized. Israel's recent Nobel Prize winners are not the product of the current education system, but of the older, poorer one.
True, teachers must earn more, but they must also be better trained and more responsible for their success or failure. The system requires a deep reform that will make teaching a desirable, competitive and effective profession that delivers a measurably better-educated citizenry.
The SSTO is not fighting to reform the ailing system, its redundant infrastructures and lack of planning, or even to create a stronger and smarter teaching profession. Rather, it is battling against an already-funded and implemented reform plan to gain very slight concessions.
The only imaginable motive for shutting down Israeli secondary education over minuscule disagreements is the lost pride of having rejected out-of-hand an exceedingly good deal. The union now plans to drag hundreds of thousands of Israeli families and educators into petty and personal politicking to attain the perceived victory that will allow it to climb down from the tree.
The school year does not belong to the SSTO. It is not a negotiable commodity for political bickering. The politicized ritual whereby unions must prove their mettle by abusing Israel's families ignores the stark reality of an education system in free-fall for the past three decades.
It is indicative of the lack of Israeli education policy planning that last Friday's meeting between Tamir and SSTO chairman Ran Erez produced no result, since Tamir is hardly positioned to negotiate over the union's demands, and the official who can - Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On - reportedly refuses to meet with the union.
It is a sad testament to Israel's educational leadership - whether in the Education Ministry, the Treasury planners or the unions - that any reasonable hopes for a sense of national responsibility and good governance among the leaders in this drama have been dashed. It strengthens the sense among Israeli parents and voters that at the highest levels of the bureaucracies in which these issues are debated, there is little connection to the needs of - forgive the sentimentality - the people.