'Historic" was the catchword of the day on Wednesday as Finance Ministry officials and National Teachers Union negotiators signed the country's first comprehensive labor reform agreement for teachers. "Be wary of Finance Ministry promises," was the message coming from Secondary School Teachers Organization head Ran Erez, sidelined by Wednesday's glittering politician-studded press conference in which the NTU signed up for starting salaries of NIS 5,300 for its members and a wage plan in which salaries would rise 30 percent faster than in the current system. Erez is understandably worried. While the SSTO he heads has shut down junior high and high schools in alternating regions of the country almost daily for weeks, angering parents, students and even some teachers with the unexpected cancellations of classes, the NTU was quietly negotiating an agreement. While the SSTO blamed the ongoing strikes on the "Finance and Education Ministries' unwillingness to negotiate seriously," the NTU managed to negotiate with these ministries a detailed and, by all accounts, generous agreement. All of which begs the obvious question: What, precisely, is the SSTO striking for? ALL AGREE that the situation of teachers is not good. Salaries are appallingly low by both local and international standards. The starting salary hovers at around NIS 2,800 a month, forcing new teachers to bring their salaries up to minimum wage by taking some NIS 800 each month in welfare payments. According to the NTU, the income of a teacher with a master's degree and 15 years' experience comes to NIS 7,202 a month, about NIS 3,000 less than a similarly qualified social worker in public service. These figures lag woefully behind international standards. According to the OECD, Israel's $18,000 a year salary (in 2004 figures) for a 15-year veteran of the education system compares poorly to the Australian average of $45,000, Spain's $41,000, France's $33,000 and even Mexico's $21,000. The salaries are 36% lower than the average in all developed countries for a starting elementary school teacher, and 42% lower for teachers with 15 years' experience, according to Tel Aviv University economist Dan Ben-David, who has advised previous governments on education policy and has extensively researched the economics of education. The OECD even noted in its "Education at a Glance" report last year that the average Israeli teacher earns 25% less than the average income among all Israeli workers. (The Korean teacher, in contrast, earns double the average Korean salary.) And while teachers earn salary bonuses for taking on extra duties, including coordinating grade activities and discipline, managing laboratories, tutoring groups and individual pupils and accompanying class trips, their overall pay has eroded by some 20% since 1995, according to the NTU. And starting teachers don't qualify for most of the added duties anyway. So it is a matter of general consensus among government officials and teachers alike that teachers are poorly paid. But, as Ben-David point outs, "the [SSTO] strike reflects a wide gap between the agreement by all that teachers are woefully underpaid and the disagreement regarding how many hours they actually work, as well as the degree of flexibility that there needs to be in their employment." This is one of the most common complaints brought against teachers when the issue of their salary comes up. How long is their workweek? How hard do they actually work? According to the unions, the workweek currently stands at 24 hours of classroom time, a number similar to government-supplied figures. But, say veteran educators, teachers must grade papers, prepare courses and consult with parents on a daily basis, all mandatory work done outside the classroom. And with Israel's classrooms the third most crowded in the developed world, with 32 students in every high school class and 28 in elementary school, that after-class work can be overwhelming. IN SHORT, the SSTO's explanation of the need for the strike - teachers are in desperate need of higher wages - appears to have merit. But this is a distorted oversimplification, critics charge. So many structural problems inhibit the education system's success and development that a strike about teachers' wages that fails to advocate more serious and fundamental reform is an exercise in futility. Currently, the education system is well-funded by OECD standards, says Ben-David, but nevertheless pays teachers poorly and delivers standardized test scores that are at the bottom of the developed world. As Ben-David has pointed out in the past, if about 90% of the education budget is spent on salaries, as is common in most of the world, and the budget itself is respectable by OECD standards, where does all the money go? Ben-David believes it may be that there are too many teachers in the system. This premise - that increased classroom hours for each teacher along with a significant pay raise must lead to the firing of teachers - is another cause for concern in the SSTO, even if it is ultimately unavoidable. At the same time, as Education Minister Yuli Tamir, MKs and others have said often, the country's four-stream education system, with separate secular, religious Zionist, haredi and Arab school systems, forces the unnecessary duplication of many positions and even buildings, wasting money that is not going to teachers and education. Such deep structural problems are the root cause of the low salaries, and agreements such as that reached Wednesday only solve part of the larger problem. According to Ben-David, a "huge leadership vacuum at the top of the education totem pole" has meant that neither the teachers' unions nor the government are advocating the kind of far-reaching "comprehensive education reform" that would correct these problems for the long term. Indeed, he charges, the teachers are not striking for the kind of better education system that would guarantee higher wages for the long term. After Wednesday's agreement, the SSTO may be in the political doghouse. Finance Ministry officials have once again demonstrated a remarkable deftness in navigating the media. NTU chairman Yossi Wasserman, whose success as a labor union leader lies with the working conditions of his constituents, has left Erez to fend for himself, refusing to form a united front that would have shut down the entire education system but could have lost the NTU over six months of negotiations and agreements with the Treasury. It's too early to tell who will blink first in the standoff between the SSTO and the Finance Ministry. But in a situation in which neither really wants the strike's disruptions, and neither has anything more significant at stake than immediate financial and political gains (certainly no comprehensive reform plan for the education system), they will probably reach a middle ground, meeting in negotiations and hammering out a wage agreement very similar to the one reached between the Treasury and the NTU. It's only a matter of time now.