High Court strikes decision to shorten school day for autistic kids

The Education Ministry published a temporary order to shorten the school days of autistic school children by 45 minutes due to a staff shortage, but the High Court has stopped it.

A school classroom is seen empty in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A school classroom is seen empty in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem.

An Education Ministry decision to shorten the school day for students on the autistic spectrum, in order to compensate for a staffing shortage, was struck down by the High Court of Justice on Sunday, stating that this violated the rights of parents and had a disproportionate impact on students.

In response to the lack of special education staff, the Education Ministry had published a temporary order on June 14 to shorten the school days of autistic school children by 45 minutes, from 4:45 p.m. to 4 p.m. There was a shortage of 1,300 special teaching staff from the previous year, leading to 1,200 classrooms operating irregularly, and some had been merged and even closed. The 2023 decision resulted in 230 classrooms having shortened hours. The ministry managed to cut the shortage almost in half since the decision was made.

The Education Ministry said that this was the best option out of all the alternatives explored, but petitioners, parents of autistic students and the Alut Israeli Society for Children and Adults with Autism, contended that there were many other alternative courses of action that didn’t sweepingly impact all schools. The shortages were not the same throughout the entire country, the petitioners argued, and this made the impact of the decision disproportionate to the problem, which was accepted by the court.

The court also accepted the argument that the decision infringed on the parents’ constitutional right of freedom of occupation. The Education Ministry had made the decision only three months before the start of the school year. The court said that parents with autistic children have limited scheduling windows and need to reconsider their days and time allotments if almost an hour were to be taken from them.

Leaving an hour early would result in a reduction of wages, and in some extreme cases require them to leave their jobs. The time change would impact the entire family structure, and have consequences also for the child’s siblings, said Justice Yitzhak Amit.

Israel's High Court of Justice (credit: ISRAELTOURISM / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Israel's High Court of Justice (credit: ISRAELTOURISM / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Education Ministry had many other options before it to solve the problem, the court noted, and demanded “outside-the-box thinking.” This included a suggestion by the ministry itself to raise the salaries of special education teachers, or to give bonuses for the last hour.

Staffing shortages could be countered by properly integrating into the education system teachers from the Arab community, who according to petitioners currently have an excess of 1,000 special education teachers.

Sherut Leumi (national service) volunteers could also begin to be directed to schools to serve as axillary staff members. While the decision was temporary, Alut said that such decisions tend to become permanent.

Protecting the rights of autistic students

Alut welcomed the decision by the court, and that it was an important ruling for the rights of students on the autistic spectrum. Yesh Atid MK Debi Biton said that the parents of autistic children would fight for the rights of their kids, and their integration into Israeli society. Yesh Atid MK Ron Katz said that the ministry’s “excuses” had been rejected by the court, and that the justices had sent the government to “do homework and take care of the special education children.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid congratulated “the High Court of Justice on the important and just decision for the benefit of thousands of families in Israel,” adding that “In days when there is no government in Israel, it is good that the High Court stands up for the rights of the weakest and the families who need it most.”

Former education minister and Beit Berl College President Yuli Tami said that the decision showed the need for the independence of the court in the face of the judicial reform plan, to protect the weakest in Israeli society.

Petitioners had also noted that the result of decreasing hours in some classes would result in parents withdrawing their children to enroll them with unaffected schools. Teachers, meanwhile, would seek out the schools with fewer hours.

The Education Ministry wrote that the average special education classroom has only eight students, and requires more staff than just a teacher – therapists and medical professionals are also needed. The number of children on the autistic spectrum in schools has been steadily increasing.