New school year, old problems

Jerusalem's education system is in clear need of a shakeup as the new school year begins but old problems remain.

Jerusalem’s lack of classrooms – 3,860 in all sectors – is a dubious present Nir Barkat inherited from years of neglect by all city governments since Teddy Kollek’s days, but one he hasn’t succeeded in solving in his nine years as mayor. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem’s lack of classrooms – 3,860 in all sectors – is a dubious present Nir Barkat inherited from years of neglect by all city governments since Teddy Kollek’s days, but one he hasn’t succeeded in solving in his nine years as mayor.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Whoever has been a teacher or a child going to school will always remember the feeling on the first day of a new school year – a mixture of emotion, hope and some stress – that everything will go well and nothing will ruin the festive atmosphere. The high hopes for a smooth opening and a successful year is shared by all – teachers, parents and politicians alike – albeit for obviously different reasons.
The school year that began last week has provided Mayor Nir Barkat with two issues: the most obvious one is the continuing growth of the number of kindergarten and elementary school pupils in the public stream. The other issue at stake is the redistribution of educational resources among the different sectors. To Barkat’s frustration, this hasn’t been welcomed by either the ultra-Orthodox or even by the members of the secular opposition, as well as some of his coalition partners.
There are 585 new pupils in what the education administration at Safra Square prefers to name the “Zionist” stream – meaning the public, non-haredi stream – meaning that the trend is still growing. However, besides such encouraging news, some dark clouds still cast their shadow on the ground, over the lack of classrooms, mostly in the haredi and Arab sectors, and the lack of success, to say the least, that Barkat’s redistribution of education resources has raised both among the public and his coalition partners.
The lack of classrooms in Jerusalem – 3,860 classes altogether in all sectors – is one that Barkat inherited from years of neglect by all the municipal governments since Teddy Kollek’s days; one that he didn’t resolve during his nine years at the helm of the city.
Basically the government, through the Education Ministry and the Treasury, is responsible for the building of new classrooms everywhere, not only in Jerusalem. Repeated attempts to force the authorities to solve this growing problem have completely failed.
According to the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, even if the government decided that for the next five years all the budgets would go for constructing the needed classrooms in Jerusalem, the problem wouldn’t be solved. This is because every year in the haredi and Arab sectors a large number of children are added to those already in the system.
“There is no chance any government would manage to completely solve this problem,” said Dr. Israel Kimhi of the JIPR, adding “it is impossible to close that gap.”
But Barkat has refused to wait for a sign of change from the government. After failing to draw the attention of the Treasury (as in the highly criticized strike in February), Barkat has decided to act. His first move was his decision to take a big loan from the bank – NIS 1 billion for this year and another such loan for next year – and to build as many classrooms as possible.
He stresses that, according to his calculations, paying off the loan would cost less than the huge sums the municipality has been paying to rent other facilities.
The lack of classrooms, especially in the Arab sector, has not been addressed since the days of mayor Ehud Olmert, when in 2001 it was revealed that this sector was lacking some 2,000 classrooms. Fifteen years later, the gap in both the haredi and Arab sectors has widened to 3,850 missing classrooms, while the number of new classrooms built by the government averages between 34 and 60 added each year – a situation characterized by a high-ranking official in the Education Ministry as a “bad joke.”
Barkat’s partner in this endeavor is the parents’ association, led by chairman Paz Cohen. Cohen’s strategy is to work simultaneously on both a petition to the High Court and at the Knesset to change the attitude of the government.
Meanwhile, the government’s response has been to try to defeat the petition.
“It is unbelievable to see how the government is trying to dump the responsibility for this situation on the municipality instead of making the Treasury and the Education Ministry do what they have to do,” Cohen says. He has fully supported Barkat’s decision to take the loan, while continuing to look for a better response from the government.
For now, children in the Arab and the haredi sectors will continue to sit packed in small rooms in rented apartments or warehouses for an unlimited time.
One of Barkat’s achievements is the Warburg compound in the growing haredi Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, that will have a cultural venue open for their needs, including Shabbat observance.
As for the haredim themselves, asked if this plan would help Barkat to ensure their support for his future plans, the answer provided by one of their representatives at city council was a short and sharp “no.”
For now, the new school year has opened with a record number of pupils – 265,913 in all grades in the three public sectors. In addition, 27 of Jerusalem’s schools are ranked among the “excellent” institutions of the ministry. In the Arab sector all schools will hold long days of study as part of efforts to keep the youth in organized frameworks, at a budget of NIS 25 million a year. In addition, two schools specializing in music and arts have opened in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and a growing number of Arab highschool students are qualifying for matriculation. In the haredi sector, 149 classrooms have been added.
“Schoolchildren are 30 percent of this city,” said Barkat at the opening of the new school year, “but they are 100% of its future.”