Analysis: Who shrank the education budget?

A long school day and free education from age three - both mandated by law - have become simply impossible to implement.

A remarkable disagreement was revealed on Sunday during the Knesset Education Committee's visit to Tiberias schools to inaugurate the 5767 school year. It concerned the steadily declining education budget. During the second Rabin government (1992-1995), the Education Ministry's budget increased steadily. In 1997, its rise was slowed, and it remained mostly stagnant until 2002, while the number of schoolchildren kept rising. Since 2003, the budget has suffered annual cutbacks. These cutbacks have led to serious shortcomings in the education offered to students in Israel. A long school day and free education from age three - both mandated by law - have become simply impossible to implement in many schools. At the same time, 8.5 class hours have been slowly cut out of the average school week. Against the backdrop of these severe cutbacks, three MKs on the Knesset Education Committee, all members of coalition parties, gave radically different explanations for the phenomenon. "When asked what led to the loss of an entire school day from the education budget, MK Rabbi Michael Melchior (Labor) last week told The Jerusalem Post: "The government must decide to place education at the center of national priorities." He said the failure of leadership at the prime ministerial level led to the "catastrophe" represented in the 8.5-hour cutback. MK Zeev Elkin (Kadima) disagreed. Asked on Sunday about the importance of education in government policy under the leadership of Kadima, Elkin told the Post that the issue was not one of priorities, but of politics. "It's a natural process in which every minister pulls the blanket in his direction," he said. "Since you can't magically expand the blanket, somebody finds their feet out in the cold." For Elkin, a succession of "weak education ministers" - ones who could not mobilize political clout in the name of education - was the real problem behind the shrinking budget. "You can't run a country that way," Melchior said in response. "A government must decide what happens with education, and not let every side pull in any direction randomly." Kadima MK Marina Solodkin disagreed with both analyses. "The problem is not one of intent," she told the Post. Rather, it is simply a question of financial expediency, she said, adding: "Financial cutbacks have to come at the expense of the ministries. Since the education budget is so huge, they cut education." According to her, the education budget is simply the easier target for Finance Ministry cutbacks. Solodkin, who has a doctorate in economic and social history, believes that the problem is bureaucratic. She said while Israeli education is deteriorating due to the structure of fiscal governance, "not bad intentions," a country with such a high birth rate as Israel's "cannot afford to cut class hours and teachers." Rather, she said, the government should examine other options for attaining fiscal balance, such as instituting an inheritance tax. The Knesset's 12 regular committees, including the Education Committee, have little power in determining the current year's budget. But they have significant influence over legislation in their respective fields and can bring significant political pressure to bear on government agencies. It is therefore of enormous significance that committee MKs disagree so radically over who or what brought about the steady cutbacks in the education budget. If committee members blame different parties, they will inevitably seek out different solutions. The last thing Israeli education needs now is to have the members of the Knesset Education Committee, in theory the most efficient watchdog and safeguard of our schoolchildren's interests, pulling in opposite directions.