Analysis: Livnat tenure saw 16 budget cuts in 5 years

Much to the relief of educators, administrators, and the general public, poorly performing education ministers - unlike failed students - are not held back until they improve. Following her resignation from the government, outgoing Education Minister Limor Livnat bade ministry executives farewell on Sunday, citing her lack of personal popularity as evidence of her success in making necessary changes in the country's education system. Yet, while few people would dispute Livnat's status as the country's least popular education minister in recent memory, even fewer would concede that her current lack of popularity is a measure of her success. Livnat herself was quick to point out her achievements over the five years since she was appointed education minister in 2001 - including the Dovrat Reform, an increase in the number of students eligible to take the Bagrut (matriculation) exams, and a decrease in the number of high school dropouts. In reality, however, the Dovrat Reform - the wide-ranging administrative and educational changes which Livnat claimed would revolutionize the Israeli school system and which she continues to cite as one of the crowning achievements of her tenure - is widely regarded as a failure. Livnat, who hoped to enhance her political clout as the initiator of the largest education reform in Israeli history, did indeed manage to place the country's education system high on the national agenda. Unfortunately, this was due not to the reform's success but to its highly controversial nature. The minister's attempts to implement Dovrat resulted in an all-out battle against the teachers unions, due to which the reform was stalled at the stage of an unsuccessful pilot experiment. In addition to excluding the teachers from contributing in any significant way to the process of formulating the reform and openly avowing her lack of support for workers' unions in general, Livnat sent out 4,500 letters of dismissal to teachers she defined as professionally "spent." As a result, she alienated the teachers unions from the ministry in an unprecedented manner, which was criticized in hindsight even by Livnat's second-in-command, Ministry Director-General Ronit Tirosh. During the five years in which Livnat served as education minister, the ministry's budget was cut 16 times, resulting in an overall cut of approximately NIS 3 billion - about 10 percent of the ministry's total budget. These resulted in an average cut of eight school hours per week for high school students, five weekly hours in junior high, and four weekly hours in elementary schools. Livnat's tenure was also characterized by increasingly crowded classrooms, according to Education Ministry data. Over the past three years, the number of classes in which there are more than 30 students has increased from 30% to 37%. These numbers are related to the small number of new classrooms built during this time - a direct result of the budget cuts. The grades on the scholastic achievement tests that Livnat implemented for the fifth and eight grades have improved significantly during her tenure, but their validity has been questioned due to repeated reports of weak students prevented from taking the exam and the intense preparations for the test that are undertaken in many schools. Following her resignation, Livnat - never one to openly admit to failure - made a point of noting the increase in the number of high school students eligible to receive a high school matriculation diploma during her tenure. The number of high school dropouts has indeed diminished during the past five years. Yet, in contrast to the goal she set for herself two years ago - that of raising the percentage of students eligible to matriculate to 70% or 80% - approximately 50% of all students are still ineligible, despite that number having risen by 8% since she came into office.