Civil Fights: Treating education as a luxury

Most Israeli governments view it not as a supreme national interest, but as a perk.

strike 224.88 (photo credit: Student Union/ Ben Gurion Unversity)
strike 224.88
(photo credit: Student Union/ Ben Gurion Unversity)
This year's lengthy education strikes – first by high school teachers, then by senior university faculty – have prompted much debate over how to fix our ailing education system, but little action. Since everyone agrees there is a crisis, this inaction might seem surprising. Yet it follows logically from a deeper problem that the national debate has largely overlooked: Most Israeli governments seem to view education not as a supreme national interest, but as a perk. And perks, by definition, are nonessential, so they never demand urgent action. If that assertion seems counterintuitive, consider the following cases: For more than seven years, the High Court of Justice has been deliberating a petition by one Jenny Baruchi, a welfare recipient who sought a university degree in order to qualify herself for the job market and get off welfare. Under existing regulations, however, university students are not entitled to welfare, meaning that Baruchi and her children would have starved during her studies. Baruchi therefore went to court, arguing that this rule is discriminatory, since yeshiva students are entitled to welfare. The great mystery in this case is why Baruchi (who has since finished her degree thanks to donations prompted by the case's publicity) should have had to go to court at all – since in fact, the government has a supreme interest in sending welfare recipients to college. Clearly, it is preferable to get people off the dole and into a job, and for anyone capable of obtaining a university degree, this is by far the most efficient way of doing so. Numerous studies have shown that unemployment drops as education rises, and Israel is no exception: In 2006, for instance, the unemployment rate was 4.0 percent for people with 16 years or more of education, 6.6 percent for those with 13 to 15 years of schooling, 11.5 percent for those with 9 to 12 years and 16 percent among those with less than nine years. Yet since Baruchi's petition was filed, four governments, headed by three different parties (Labor, Likud and Kadima), have successively upheld the position that university students do not deserve welfare. Why? Because the rule is that anyone able to afford luxuries does not need government handouts – and a university education is considered a luxury, not a national interest. A SIMILAR attitude emerges from the cutbacks in the government's adult education program, which offers everything from basic literacy courses to remedial high school classes leading to a high school degree. The program's already modest budget of NIS 161 million in 2005 has thus far been slashed by almost 50 percent, and further cuts are planned for this year. This program, too, is clearly a national interest: With the government spending tens of billions of shekels a year on unemployment and welfare benefits, it makes sense to invest a tiny fraction of this sum in educating the unemployed to make them more employable. And even at its 2005 level, the program consumed only half a percent of the total education budget – hardly an unmanageable amount. But the government thinks otherwise: It views the program as a luxury. Hence it is easily cut to pay for essentials such as our four ministers without portfolio, the previously nonexistent Strategic Threats Ministry or the newly resurrected Religious Affairs Ministry. Another example was the government's decision, effective this past September, to cancel special English classes for students already proficient in the language. These classes aimed to produce graduates who spoke and wrote English at the same level as their American or British peers. In a world where English is the lingua franca of business, science and diplomacy, Israelis who can speak and write native-level English are an obvious national asset. Thus these classes, too, constitute a clear national interest. Yet to the government, they were merely a perk enjoyed by Western immigrants. Incredibly, its stated rationale for canceling the classes was that since they were not available to all students – other than new immigrants and their children, few students speak English at the requisite level – they had no right to exist. But by that standard, the government should also cancel advanced high school math and science courses: They, too, are not available to all students, since few people are born with the requisite mathematical abilities to handle them. In this case, a campaign by Western immigrants recently persuaded the government to reverse its decision. Yet this reversal was also presented merely as a concession to a special-interest group: According to the Education Ministry, the decision was made because the government wants to encourage continued immigration from English-speaking countries. There was no recognition of the fact that educating a cadre of fluent English speakers could benefit the country as a whole. THE ABOVE examples affect relatively small groups of people. The importance of educating the majority ought to be even clearer: Having no natural resources, Israel's economy depends entirely on its human capital; that means a well-educated work force is not a luxury, but a necessity. And indeed, all governments pay lip service to the importance of education. The ongoing lack of any true reform is due not to lack of desire, they claim, but to practical difficulties: the teachers unions' opposition, the enormous sums of money reform would require, and so forth. There is some truth to these claims – which is precisely why it is instructive to examine the government's attitude toward easy cases, like the ones above. All three of these cases involved trivial sums of money, and none involved controversial reforms: In the latter two, the government would merely have had to refrain from axing existing programs; in the first, the requisite change was easily made and would have aroused no political or union opposition. Yet in each case, successive governments opted instead for the anti-education approach. In so doing, they showed their true colors: They do not view education as a national interest, but as an expendable perk. And until this attitude changes, no government will be willing to tackle the big, controversial and expensive reforms that our education system truly needs.