A learning curve

Preschool will be free next year, but is the city ready to absorb an influx of pupils?

Arts and Crafts 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Arts and Crafts 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Abigail Yochanan’s first thought upon hearing that the cabinet had approved a law subsidizing preschool fees for three- and four-year-old children was, “Great!” Her second thought was, “Let’s see what we can do with the money we’ll save.”
And then, recalls Yochanan – a high-ranking employee at one of Jerusalem’s leading academic research institutes – she realized that while this was good news for her three-and-a-half-year-old son, she wasn’t sure about moving her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to a public preschool next year.
The Yochanans are not alone. The new law, based on the Trajtenberg Report’s recommendations following last summer’s protests is good news for many; all parties involved have welcomed the government’s decision to subsidize early childhood education.
However, a lot of questions remain.
According to the new law, as of the upcoming school year, public preschools and private ones operated by non-profit organizations will cost families between NIS 8,000 and NIS 20,000 less (depending on the number of preschool-age children they have).
Ilana – a municipality employee who asks not to be identified – says that upon hearing the news, she felt a mixture of emotions, ranging from joy to anger and frustration.
“It just came 10 years too late for me,” she explains with a sigh.
The government decision – which, if passed in the Knesset, will go into effect when the school year begins this September – will essentially implement a law that has existed in the country since 1951, which mandates that public education be free of charge from age three and up. Until now, education has only been free from kindergarten (age five) onward.
“This is a real revolution,” says city council member Rachel Azaria, who held the early childhood education portfolio until she was dismissed from her post two months ago. Azaria is involved with preparing the law on the national level and has been working with the Trajtenberg team and attending the Knesset meetings on this issue. She says that the law will have to overcome many difficulties and obstacles in order to pass, but surprisingly, things might be easier in Jerusalem.
“Being a relatively poor city, Jerusalem has, compared to some well-to-do cities in the country’s center, fewer private and expensive early childhood facilities, which, according to the new law, are not [eligible for] the subsidy [although they can apply to become non-profit organizations – P.C.].”
As a result, she says, “the move to open private and semi-private institutions to be included in the law will not be too difficult to realize here.” She adds dryly that “for once, the fact that Jerusalem’s residents are not among the richest in the country serves us well.”
WHAT DOES the new law say, and what will happen in Jerusalem in a few months? First, here are the facts.
It doesn’t say that early childhood education (ages three and four) is mandatory, just that it is free of charge.
“This means parents have the option to decide whether they want to send their children to a public institution or not,” says Devora Givati, head of the public preschools division at the municipality.
So parents who prefer to keep their children at home or in a small private framework will not be violating the law if they choose not to send their children to a preschool.
“But it also means that now, the municipality has to be ready to find a place for every child of that age whose parents decide to send them to such a public institution, whether it is a municipality preschool or one of the recognized nonprofit organizations [such as Na’amat, WIZO or Emunah] that have run preschools and kindergartens for years,” she says.
Parents who send their children to public preschools this September will no longer have to pay tuition, which until now has ranged from NIS 77 to NIS 773 per month (depending on the family’s socioeconomic situation) for a day that lasts from 7:30 a.m to 2 p.m. Parents who also opted for an afternoon program that goes until 4 p.m. have had to pay an additional sum of NIS 800 to NIS 900. From now on, says Azaria, the latter sum will be subsidized based on the same socioeconomic criteria used for the morning program up to now.
“Altogether, we’re talking about a cost that will drop from NIS 1,600 per child to merely NIS 400-NIS 500 per month [if the family is eligible for a subsidy for the afternoon program],” says Azaria. “That’s a huge difference, which will have an impact on major issues like the size of a family or a mother deciding to work – the sky is the limit.”
Private preschools, notably, charge up to NIS 3,000 and sometimes even more (although these are not common in Jerusalem). However, these may remain a serious option for parents who can afford it, since the classes are smaller at 18 to 21 children, compared to public institutions, which can have up to 35 children.
One of the advantages of the law is that the subsidies also extend to private frameworks operated by recognized non-profit institutions (like the WIZO, Emunah and Na’amat preschools or, in Jerusalem, the Reform Movement’s Ganei Haim network). As a result, for many families, there will be no change at all, except that the same services will cost much less.
The problem arises with small private enterprises that cannot be considered non-profits, or where the preschool teachers have no recognized education degree in that profession.
“For those, the new law is a real problem,” confirms Azaria. “Many of them will disappear, or they will have to lower their prices in order to remain competitive.
It is not clear how many of them will make it.”
FOR RO’I and Ma’ayan Sharon, who have three daughters, aged five, three and two, there will be no changes at all.
“The girls will remain in the same institutions, but we will pay much less, and this is significant for our family,” says Ma’ayan. Both in their early 30s, he has a salaried job and she runs her own business. In their case, they say, the high cost of education had no impact on their decision to have more children.
“That issue is less weighty for religious couples, but I know young secular couples where it does affect such a step, when the plan for a fourth child is a serious decision, and it has a lot of financial importance,” she says.
According to the municipality’s figures, there are about 6,000 children between the ages of three and four per year. At present, about 9,000 children between three and five are registered in the city’s public institutions. These figures represent only the state and state religious sectors, and do not include the children in the haredi sector, where early childhood educational frameworks exist independently, and the Arab sector, where such frameworks are most lacking.
Givati points out that any private preschool can join the pool of institutions that will benefit from the new law, as long as it agrees to operate as an official non-profit organization, and undergo inspection from the Education Ministry and the municipality.
However, she continues, even those in public preschools may have to wait to reap the law’s benefits.
“The understanding at the municipality is to accept all parents’ applications to register their children in the public network,” she explains. “However, since it is clear that we didn’t have enough time to prepare, we have to draw some lines, at least for the first year. For example – and the law allows us to do this – we will give priority to four-year-olds, and the three-year-olds will come second, due to lack of facilities.”
She expresses hope that parents “will understand and cooperate.”
In order to face the high expected demand, the municipality has a team, headed by its director-general Yossi Heiman, working on ways to answer those demands, including renting and building the required facilities. At present, there are about 1,000 children between three and four who are in private institutions, and Givati says there is no way to know in advance who among them will now switch to the public ones.
“We aim to be ready for all, [but] clearly this is not going to happen overnight,” she warns.
One of the team’s first tasks, she continues, is to draw a clear picture of the situation on the ground, regarding where there is space for children applying and where there is not. “We will propose to the parents to take the children to other neighborhoods if we cannot offer them any place closer,” she says.
For example, there are no places available in Har Homa, but parents will have the option of going to East Talpiot or to Gilo, where there are still enough places. The same goes for Beit Hakerem, which is already full; parents there can send their children to Ir Ganim.
Givati stresses again that this situation resulted from a lack of time to prepare, but adds that it will strengthen integration between the neighborhoods, a step the municipality’s education department supports.
She admits that while she sees in the new law a great educational opportunity not just for the city, but for the whole country, she is aware that it may have a dramatic impact on small private preschools, which will not be able to join the process even if they wish to.
Private preschools will first need to be registered as non-profit associations, which is a long and difficult procedure that costs money. On top of this, there are various requirements for educational institutions – from the Education Ministry, regarding the teachers’ professional credentials; the Health Ministry, regarding food the children are served; and the municipality, in terms of business permits, fire safety and security.
“It is clear that only a small number of such places will agree to go through this procedure, and only some of them will meet these requirements,” says Givati, adding that all the parties involved know that it will take time to achieve the desired results.
“It won’t be done in one year, not even two,” she says, “but there’s no question that this is the right thing to do.”
MIRI TEDESCHI, the director of the preschool at The Hebrew University, is experiencing some of what Givati has referred to.
Tedeschi, herself a professional preschool teacher, runs two classes – one for ages two to three, and the other for ages three to four.
The latter class has 23 children, and as of next September, although they will all be eligible for the subsidies, none of them will receive those subsidies if they remain in her school.
Tedeschi says that so far none of the parents have announced they are leaving, but she says she is realistic and expects that to happen, if not immediately, then certainly later on.
She is not alone. Many preschool teachers are concerned that the new law may sound the bell for the end of their profession.
Two other private preschool teachers, who ask not to be named because they do not wish to stir up resentment before things are clarified with the municipality, say it is clear that smaller schools will not be able to handle the bureaucracy and expense involved in qualifying for subsidies.
One possibility would be to lower the private schools’ fees considerably – something the two were reluctant to consider at first, but admit could be an answer, “at least for the first year.”
One argues, though, that despite the attraction of the public preschools’ subsidized fees, “nothing can replace a small, intimate preschool, with maximum of 20 children in class, while in the public ones you have to deal with at least 35 children – think of the flu contagion alone!” Both add that the best solution would be to establish one large association for all the private kindergartens and preschools in the city, that would represent them and defend their rights. But for the moment, there is no such initiative on the horizon.
“I am absolutely ready to go through the procedure to be recognized as a non-profit association and become part of the new arrangement,” says Tedeschi, but if “I will have to spend hours running from one [office] to another and pay tens of thousands of shekels in taxes, then perhaps it’s not worth it at all.”
She adds that she supports the new law not just as a potential beneficiary, but also as a citizen, saying she is glad last summer’s protests, in which she participated, have produced results.
“I, as well as other preschool teachers who [run private] institutions, want to help the parents pay less, but the state, the government, the municipality should do something about this terrible bureaucracy first.”
THE YOCHANANS, meanwhile – both in their 30s and with a child in elementary school in addition to their two preschool-age children – say that in their case, they are entitled to full subsidy for their three-year-old son, who attends a public preschool in Neveh Granot. As for their two-year-old daughter, who goes to the Hebrew University preschool, Abigail and her husband Gil say they are discussing the matter and are inclined to keep her there, at least for the moment. Though that school will not qualify for the subsidy, they fear a public one might be packed.
Abigail says she knows that many young parents who can still afford it might reach the same conclusion.
Gil, meanwhile, hopes that in addition to the monetary issue, a solution can be found for the level of service the public preschools provide.
“Money is, of course, important,” he says, but the number of children in one class and the quality of the educational program are also issues that deserve to be addressed.
One way or another, the Yochanans and many of their friends hope the establishment – i.e., the municipality – will expedite the process of authorizing private institutions for inclusion in the new law.
Givati says this is indeed the municipality’s position and that she plans to meet principals of such preschools next week to figure out, together, how to proceed.
“It is no less our interest than theirs,” she says, but adds that there are some basic criteria that she cannot overlook.
“Basically there are three kinds of institutions that the law considers,” she explains: the public kindergartens run by the municipality; the private ones run by recognized associations and under full supervision; and the entirely private ones, which sometimes operate from private homes and are mostly run by women who have no professional training (though Givati is careful to point out that this does not necessarily mean such places are unfit for children).
She says the administration is aware of the bureaucratic issue and is making serious efforts to improve the procedure as far as is possible within the law’s requirements.
“I don’t think we can help those [schools that do not require teachers to have professional credentials], but institutions directed by professional preschool teachers will surely benefit....We need them anyway in order to meet the demands of the parents.”