Analysis: Just the beginning...

What's important is what the SSTO strike launched not what was achieved.

Tamir 224.88 (photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldoks)
Tamir 224.88
(photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldoks)
Despite the enthusiastic back-slapping coming out of the Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO), the Education Ministry and the Treasury, the "historic" deal signed Thursday amounted to a very small gain for the nation's secondary school teachers. In May, the elementary school teachers' National Teachers Union (NTU), representing two-thirds of Israel's teachers, signed an agreement with the Finance Ministry that instituted a new wage arrangement in which salaries would start at more than NIS 5,000 per month and rise 30% faster than previously, in exchange for an almost one-third increase in work hours. The reform also gave more authority over personnel decisions to principals. That was five months before the SSTO began its crippling strike at the high schools and more than 40 percent of junior high schools. The strike has meant thousands of shekels in lost wages for each of the union's 40,000 members (most teachers almost certainly won't recover a large part of the money), tens of millions of shekels lost to the economy, and a massive gap of 65 school days that the country's secondary school students must now make up. Yet the deal reached Thursday, after much suffering, is very similar in its main articles to the deal reached with the NTU in May. Why, then, all the excitement? The answer is simple. It isn't what the union achieved that matters, but the process the SSTO strike launched that is important. The teachers didn't gain much in terms of wages. In order not to break the deal with the larger elementary teachers union, the government refused to budge too much on the question of salaries, offering a scheme roughly similar to the NTU's, though some of the minutiae of the agreement must still be finalized. The other differences are also not earth-shattering. The NTU deal offered higher salaries in exchange for more classroom teaching hours. In the SSTO deal, those hours are for personal tutoring. Also, according to SSTO legal counsel Sigal Pail, "For the first time in Israel's history, there's going to be a plan to reduce the number of kids in the classroom, and we're going to be part of that plan." The cabinet has given this as a "government commitment," which another SSTO official noted was enforceable in court. But, though that plan must be completed within 45 days, details were sketchy as to the timeline for its implementation. These are worthy achievements for a union, but do they justify the longest school strike in the country's history? Instead, what's significant about Thursday's deal is that it isn't final. The pay hikes are conditional on the union and the government finalizing a broad reform plan that will be negotiated over the next six months, to be based on the Oz Letmura ("Courage to Change") reforms developed by the SSTO. This includes more sweeping changes, such as restructuring the teachers' work week and promotion ladder, more private tutoring hours, and the like. Since the first SSTO strike in December 2006, many have blasted union head Ran Erez for launching an ill-conceived and open-ended strike when a working reform plan (the NTU's) was already on the table. Erez's personality, they said, and not the good of the teachers, was the primary factor in launching the strike. Yet, over the past year, union officials and others defended him by saying he simply believed he could get more from the government than the NTU did. In the short term, he failed to get a great deal beyond what the government offered in May. But by forcing the government to recognize some of the structural issues in secondary education and to promise to deal with them - complete with a written timeline for developing and implementing many of the reforms - Erez may have succeeded in getting something very important indeed. In themselves, the two additional private tutoring hours per week and the accelerated schedule for wage increases and class-size reform do not mark even the beginning of the salvation of the secondary education system. But the current deal launched a process that will see a broader reform plan developed. If that process is apolitical and honest, and if the reforms are courageous, it could be just what Israeli secondary education needs to claw its way out of its dismal condition.