Special education in Israel: Same mess, different year, say parents

However, according to parents and advocates for children with special needs, it’s the same old mess, just a different year.

ACCORDING TO the JDC report, 95% of parents of special-needs children claimed they are in great need of financial assistance. (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
ACCORDING TO the JDC report, 95% of parents of special-needs children claimed they are in great need of financial assistance.
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
When the Education Ministry said it was rolling out reforms when the school year starts in the special education system that will make inclusion easier for many special-needs children, it sounded like this year would be different – and better.
However, according to parents and advocates for children with special needs, it’s the same old mess, just a different year.
The Education Ministry confirmed in an email that the complex reforms mandated by a law passed in the Knesset last year that were designed to make full and partial inclusion in mainstream classrooms possible for thousands of special-education pupils who have been denied that access in the past would go forward as planned, starting September 1, “according to the law.”
But earlier this summer, the Education Ministry said there was a budget shortfall of nearly NIS 500m. due to an increase in children entering special education for the coming school year. Then, a few days later, it announced that it had suddenly found some money to make up part of the shortfall, a statement that seemed not to reassure anyone.
Parents of special-needs children demonstrated in Tel Aviv on Monday, calling on the government to explain how they would be able to implement the reforms, given the increase in pupils that will tax an already overextended system.
At the demonstration, parents demanded that the Education Ministry delay the implementation of these reforms for a year so they could be carried out correctly and so that the ministry could come up with a long-term plan for their implementation with all special-needs children, particularly to allow for teacher training and to figure out how to add more classrooms.
Hadas Arnon-Sharabi, a lawyer from the advocacy department of ALUT, the Israeli  Society for Children and Adults with Autism, said, “The Ministry of Education was asleep, and it just woke up.”
She said there has been an increase in the number of pupils with autism and other special needs entering the system every year for many years, as there has been worldwide. This year, she said, there are about 10,000 new pupils with special needs entering the system, approximately 3,000 of whom have autism.
“The Ministry of Education didn’t build enough new schools, didn’t open enough new classes – according to real needs – for the pupils entering the system this year,” she said. “Nothing has been done about the reforms. The teachers who will be getting special education pupils in their mainstream classes have not received any training. The school staff have gotten almost no training. The system is not ready yet.”
Arnon-Sharabi added that the ministry handles the situation of finding places for new pupils by using a tactic that parents of children with special needs say they are all too familiar with: increasing class sizes beyond the legal limits.
“There are allowed to be up to eight kids in a class, but in my son’s class they brought in two new pupils last year, so there were 10,” said a mother of a son with autism in a communication class who asked that her name not be used. When she complained, she was told there was nothing that could be done.
“I would have challenged it legally, but these people are so hostile, you don’t want them to take it out on your child,” who could be moved to a less desirable or unsuitable school, she said. “Every year, there is an increase in pupils with special needs in general and with autism in particular entering the special education system, and every year they say they are taken by surprise.”
All parents of special-needs children know the late-summer routine: Placements for special-education students are often not assigned until the last week of August, giving the schools just days to prepare for the new children.
In addition, there are always some pupils who have not been assigned by September 1.
Assigning a child to a special-needs classroom is not simply a matter of parents finding a school, seeing if there are places and then enrolling their child. A placement committee, which requires the presence of several education professionals, must be convened to assess the suitability of the child’s placement.
The child is rarely, if ever, present at such committees and the professionals make their decisions based on reports. Because of the number of people required, convening such a committee is difficult in terms of scheduling. But no pupil may start in a new classroom without one.
In response to an email request to know how many children had not been assigned as of August 27, the Education Ministry replied that 70 pupils had not been assigned. Nine minutes later, a second email from the ministry changed that figure to 20.
There is no way to independently verify these numbers, but they sounded low to Arnon-Sharabi, as well as to an Education Ministry employee who works in the special education system but didn’t want his name used. The employee said he had been to four placement committee meetings in one city in the past two days and had more coming up the next day.
“Do you mean to tell me that six of these 20 students just happen to be in the area that I cover?” he asked, adding that in his opinion, there could well be more than 70.
The fact that no one knows who the Education minister will be following the election on September 17 does not help matters, nor does the fact that Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz has been spending a great deal of time on the campaign trail with his Yamina party, the professional noted.
Arnon-Sharabi said she and her colleagues at ALUT spent much of the summer, as they do every year, helping parents whose children have not received placements.
“They come to us every year in July and August and we workday and night to help their children start the school year on time, just like other students do in Israel,” she said.