Gafni bill stumbles in education panel hearing

Opposition MKs relieved, but wary; Tirosh: "There's some sort of catch here."

Despite its passing in the Knesset over two weeks ago by a wide margin, the so-called Gafni bill - an initiative led by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) which would require local authorities to provide full funding for most haredi schools - was dealt a serious setback during a Knesset Education Committee hearing on Monday, in which supporters of the bill were forced to retreat from their previous demands. At the onset of the hearing, Education Minister MK Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) said he was not willing to accept Gafni's demands that local authorities provide 100 percent funding for recognized non-governmental haredi schools, and that the sum provided would remain at its current 75%. That development, along with the committee's insistence that Gafni's demands for increased services also extend to other recognized non-governmental schools - such as Democratic and Christian schools - surprised opposition MKs, who said they were unsure of what the new conditions really meant. "We've basically gone back to the Nahari Law," said MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima), referring to the 2007 law that established the current precedent of 75% funding from local authorities to recognized non-governmental haredi institutions. Tirosh has been leading the opposition to the bill in the Knesset, and had previously said that if it were passed into law, she would appeal to the Supreme Court. Tirosh said on Monday afternoon that while she wouldn't fight the bill with its new wording, she was wary of its final outcome. "I don't see anything new, which leads me to believe that there's some sort of catch here," she said. One of the factors that led Tirosh and other opposition MKs to that conclusion was the fact that Gafni himself, along with other haredi MKs present at Monday's hearing, voted in favor of the bill, even with the new language. Gafni was unavailable for comment Monday afternoon, but other opponents of his bill said they too were taken aback by his vote in favor of the new conditions, even though Gafni was somewhat defiant during the hearing. "We're relieved at what we're seeing before our eyes, but we're still very worried about what we haven't seen yet," said Einat Hurvitz, the director for the legal and public department of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), who has been following the developments surrounding the bill closely. "I think the fear is that [Gafni and his colleagues] will attempt to change the language later on down the line, when there is less time for the opposition to fight back," she said. Hurvitz noted that the Knesset was currently preoccupied with the Budget Law, and would also be going to recess at the end of July. "Gafni heads the Finance Committee, so he holds a lot of power when it comes to the Budget Law," Hurvitz explained. "He could bring the bill up for its first reading this week if he wanted to, and then it will go back to the committee for another round of debate." Maybe for now they're saying that the 75% is fine, but next time, they could just as easily demand 100% again." Another development during Monday's committee hearing saw the passing of an amendment to the bill, which would allow local authorities to convert some of their funding into shavei kesef, or equal funds, meaning services such as school transportation and meals, among others, could be used in the form of cash. "But this is also a problematic area," Hurvitz continued. "Because it's still not clear what kind of limitations this type of funding would have or where exactly it would go. If the committee makes it clear, however, that this type of funding would be given to all recognized non-governmental schools and not just haredi institutions, I think we could live with that." Nonetheless, Hurvitz said the opposition was expressing cautious relief on Monday, as the bill in its original form had presented "serious dangers to the future of the state." "The haredi institutions are still not implementing the core curriculum [including math, science and English] that would sufficiently prepare their pupils to enter the workforce," Hurvitz said. "And within the next two to three years, 30% of the country's pupils are expected to be enrolled in haredi institutions. Down the line, this will only serve to debilitate the workforce and for that matter, the country as a whole."