Budget battle over ulpanim may see them privatized by mid-2009

State-funded Hebrew classes for new immigrants could be privatized by mid-2009, according to plans being drawn up by the Ministry for Immigrant Absorption. Some 300 ulpan classes nationwide could be replaced by courses in private language-studies institutes, as responsibility for the ulpanim transfers next year from the Education to the Absorption Ministry after the Education Ministry decided to stop funding the ulpanim due to budget cuts. Education Ministry Dir.-Gen. Shlomit Amihai had planned to cut the ulpanim budget by 50 percent in 2008, drastically reducing the level and number of Hebrew classes available for immigrants, but decided to delay the funding cut until the complete transfer in 2009. The Education Ministry blamed the budget shortfall on the new education reforms developed after the teachers' strikes, saying the budget allotted to the reforms - some NIS 5 billion over five years - was insufficient to cover their implementation. This has left the Absorption Ministry "looking for alternatives to the current system," Absorption Ministry Dir.-Gen. Erez Halfon, who is spearheading the move, said on Monday. "The Absorption Ministry doesn't have a mechanism for professional education, and it doesn't have Hebrew teachers, so in order to guarantee that Hebrew studies for olim continue, we may have no choice but to turn to private schools." At the Knesset Education Committee meeting Monday dealing with the ulpanim, MKs lashed out at the Education Ministry and the government for the plans to defund and privatize the system. "It is inconceivable that adult education will be privatized," said MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) on Monday as the Knesset Education Committee debated the move. "The privatization of the ulpanim is a clear anti-Zionist act and must be vetoed." "If the Education Ministry wanted to transfer the ulpanim to the Absorption Ministry, it should have started discussion with them before declaring it would close the classes," committee chairman MK Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad) said. New immigrants are eligible for 500 state-funded hours of Hebrew studies during their first six months in the country. The Absorption Ministry also said Monday that it was looking to reform the ulpanim system, which the ministry said was ineffective, following the transfer. A joint committee made up of Education and Absorption officials will present recommendations in three months regarding the transfer. Ministry studies over the past few years have shown that olim finish their ulpan studies with relatively low levels of Hebrew knowledge, and some 50% never apply or do not finish these studies. According to the ministry, a 2006 study showed that 65% of olim do not use Hebrew as "a primary language" even after many had attended ulpan studies.