[email protected]: Bad governance by design

Comptroller's report shows that 'stealth schools' are off the Education Ministry's radar.

asher meir 88 (photo credit: )
asher meir 88
(photo credit: )
The State Comptroller's Office this week published a report on the local councils, and revealed a number of more or less (mostly more) severe breaches of good governance. One of the most widely discussed, and widely misunderstood, chapters is that dealing with the funding of the haredi education system. What made headlines were the descriptions of horrifying conditions in haredi schools: children learning in temporary structures, or even makeshift ones like converted buses or railroad cars. What was sometimes misunderstood was the reasons the report found for this situation. The report never claims that the haredi education infrastructure is under-funded. The claim, buttressed by much evidence, is that the system is drastically under-supervised. No one is minding the store. Not only doesn't the Education Ministry have a proper list of haredi schools' facilities and their state of repair, they don't even have a complete list of the schools. Many schools are completely unregistered. Of course any system will have occasional holes and oversights; that's why the State Comptroller's Office exists. What is most disturbing to me is the distinct impression that this situation is not an oversight, but the result of a deliberate effort to keep these institutions unaccountable. This is another example of "Meir's law": Virtually all ethics scandals involve trying to keep things off the balance sheet. The background is as follows: Israel, like many countries, has two education systems, one publicly run and financed, and one privately run and financed but subject to Education Ministry oversight. Virtually all secular and national-religious youth are educated in public schools (though many parents pay tuition for supposed "extras," a topic worthy of a column in itself). But virtually no haredi schools are public, mostly because they don't want their curriculum to be subject to all the dictates of the Education Ministry. Most are "recognized" independent schools, meaning that although the Education Ministry does not run them, it does supervise them and makes sure they meet certain minimum standards. Unlike the situation abroad, where private schools are held to the same basic standards as public ones even though they are privately run, the standards enforced on the independent schools are significantly below those enforced for public schools. (I do not know that they actually perform worse, only that the official standards are lower.) So far, so good; the situation is similar to that in many other countries. Private schools have a benefit, a measure of independence and a price - financing the school. However, there are two wrinkles: • The so-called "private schools" enjoy very extensive government support. Based on what I gather from the Comptroller's Report, it seems to be roughly commensurate to that of the public schools. Perhaps it is somewhat less, but the schools are certainly not "independent" from a financial point of view; the education system of 15 percent of Israeli students can hardly be expected to be totally unofficial. • In a bizarre and uniquely Israeli twist, the education minister has the authority to authorize unrecognized schools. These are typically schools of extreme anti-Zionist religious groups that do not want any Education Ministry meddling at all. But they do require some kind of approval because Israel, like all developed countries, mandates that all school-aged children be enrolled in school. These account for most of the "stealth schools" that are completely off the Education Ministry's radar. The Comptroller's Report doesn't object that the "private" schools receive government funding; what it objects to is that their so-called private nature means there is no transparency in their funding. As I interpret the report, the opacity is not incidental but fundamental; just as public schools can get funding only through transparent and nominally equitable criteria, the independent schools can get funding only through opacity and favoritism. There is no orderly process through which these schools can get funding; the money is dished out in coalition agreements, earmarked for the haredi schools favored by coalition considerations, and distributed by "committees" that, as State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss discovered, are not identified and often don't exist. (At least one supposed "committee" approving millions in shekels of disbursements was a single individual.) This process naturally guarantees that the money is misspent. The whole process is totally detached from accountability. Here is one example: It is more effective both educationally and economically to build schools than to hold classes in temporary structures. Mobile homes are expensive, uncomfortable, take up many times the space of higher structures and last only a short time. But thousands of classrooms in the haredi sector are temporary structures. This makes no sense when there is an orderly planning process for providing for classrooms for pupils, but it makes perfect sense when you get a one-time grant through a coalition agreement and you have to take the money and run. This example is only one of many demonstrating the unbearable price all Israeli's pay for the ambivalent attitudes toward haredim, who currently make up about 15% of Israel's school children. Virtually all aspects of the status quo seem to be cleverly designed to impose the greatest hardship on haredim and other Israelis alike. The most striking example is the army. Want to compel haredim to go to the army? Go ahead. Want to exempt them? Well, then exempt them. But we have a brilliant compromise; we exempt them on condition that they don't go to work, thus obligating the haredi families to a life of poverty (which is not at all a natural characteristic of haredi life, as we see abroad), while simultaneously making them a perpetual drain on the country's welfare system - to the profound detriment of all. The same thing is true in education. Want to compel the haredim to adopt a core curriculum? So go ahead and compel even private schools to maintain reasonable standards of performance in English and math, etc. Want to exempt them? Make separate standards for these schools. Want to force them to finance themselves? Refuse to give government funding for schools not under Education Ministry administration. Want to finance them? Establish suitable criteria for haredi schools. Instead we have the brilliant solution of exempting them from effective oversight in both education and infrastructure, then providing them with funding that can be provided on the solemn condition that it be spent in an irresponsible and unaccountable way. I'm not blaming the haredi educational institution for this mess; the problem is structural. The State of Israel officially distances itself from haredi education, but politically this is impossible (remember that Israel is a democracy and haredim vote too), so the funding keeps coming but the Education Ministry adopts a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude toward its disbursement. I think 60 years is long enough for this nonsense. The State of Israel decided de facto generations ago that it would exempt most haredi men from conscription and that it would finance the independent haredi schools. Instead of doing both of these in a way that imposes maximum costs on haredim and non-haredim alike, they should be done in ways that impose minimum costs on both groups. I am not "proposing" that haredi schools get government funding; I am acknowledging the fact that they do and have done so for years. In terms of education, I think the best solution for Israel (and for other Western democracies) is to eliminate the stark dichotomy between public and private schools. All schools should get transparent funding commensurate with their adherence to the standards of the education authority. If a haredi school provides half the weekly hours of core subjects such as English and math, they should get half the funding provided to state schools. They should also get funding for religious studies up to whatever ceiling state schools obtain for this field of study, which is of evident educational importance in the Jewish state. These funds should be provided on an equal basis and with an equal degree of supervision, as state schools. If necessary, a separate haredi administration can be created to administer these rules. As it is, the funds given to these schools are disbursed by the haredi sector itself; the difference is that currently this is done without any oversight, whereas I am suggesting that a mechanism be created. I hope the Comptroller's Report will move Israel toward solving this problem and ultimately to eliminating the entire phenomenon of "stealth spending" in our national budget. [email protected] Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.