Education Ministry rejects deal on Petah Tikva Ethiopian pupils

Just when it seemed like last-minute school placements had been arranged for some 100 Ethiopian immigrant children in Petah Tikva, the Education Ministry announced Sunday evening that it would not approve a deal worked out by the city and decided instead to pull state funding from the "unofficial but recognized" schools that were the source of the controversy. Earlier in the day, Mayor Yitzhak Ohayon, at a press conference, announced he had reached a compromise with the heads of the semi-private Lamerhav, Da'at Mevinim and Darkei Noam schools, whereby the 109 Ethiopian children who had arrived in the city from absorption centers over the summer vacation would be split up among all of the city's religious schools. The agreement, which was brokered with the assistance of former Education Ministry director-general and Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh, stated that 34 children would be enrolled in the state-religious schools, 30 in the "unofficial recognized" (semi-private) religious schools and 45 in different haredi and Shas-operated institutions. "All the Ethiopian children will be absorbed into regular classes, with each child receiving a personally designed study program, paid for by the Education Ministry," read the statement drafted by Ohayon and Tirosh. The semi-private schools' agreement to include the students in regular classes was contrary to their earlier statements that they would only accept them into special "absorption classes," where the Ethiopian children could receive special help to catch up with the academic demands of the regular classes. The schools had agreed to accept children into regular first grades, but had asked that older pupils be assigned to the special classes. That plan had been severely criticized by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who claimed that "special classes are a kind of small ghetto for pupils of a certain origin. We will not accept excuses and behavior reeking of racism." The Education Ministry, meanwhile, rejected yesterday's compromise and insisted on the registration of the students in accordance with their original placement - which divided all 109 children between the three semi-private and the city's state-religious schools, leaving the haredi frameworks out of it. A release issued by the ministry's spokesperson said that the deal was made behind their backs and without their knowledge or approval. The ministry, the statement said, planned to instead pull significant government funding from the three semi-private schools. The principals of the three schools attended a hearing before Education Ministry Director-General Dr. Shimshon Shoshani at 6 p.m. on Sunday, after threatening they would not attend unless the principals of all the schools in the city were called in, too. In response to the Education Ministry's rejection, the three schools issued a joint statement to the press. "The authority to place primary school students is delegated to the municipality and we accepted the placements that were given to us by Mayor Ohayon…. We regret that people with vested interests are dragging the whole educational system into complete chaos and endangering the beginning of the school year for all the city's children," read the statement. The Parent-Teachers Forum of the state-religious schools announced that it still planned to hold citywide school strike on Tuesday, claiming that even under the new agreement, the state-religious schools would still be taking on a disproportionate number of the Ethiopian children. The parents of the Ethiopian children also rejected the compromise. They plan to hold demonstrations in front of the Petah Tikva Municipality and in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem at 11 Monday morning. The protests are being organized by the representatives of Ethiopian Jewish Community Organizations in cooperation with Hakol Hinuch, the Movement for the Advancement of Education in Israel. Kadima MK Shlomo Molla, himself an Ethiopian immigrant, has joined the calls for an anti-racism demonstration. "The compromise is shameful and hurtful. There is nothing new to it. It is a fig leaf for the schools' racist policies," said Molla. The Knesset Education Committee will hold a special hearing on the matter on Monday afternoon. Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke out against the rejection of Ethiopian children in schools, calling it "a moral terror attack." During the afternoon press conference, both Ohayon and Tirosh accused the media of turning the affair into a witch-hunt against the semi-private religious schools. "These schools were slandered without cause. They have absorbed Ethiopian children in the past and assist them in all aspects of life, not only academic. They accept children from all sectors of the population - east and west, Sephardic and Ashkenazi. They were stigmatized," said Tirosh. "I believe they were targeted from the start. I have never seen such a Kafkaesque coordinated assault," she said.