Knesset committee hears vociferous debate over education budget

Israeli schoolchildren receive 13.5% more instruction hours than the average among developed countries.

A boisterous Knesset Education Committee meeting on Monday gave voice to ongoing controversy surrounding the education budget. While economists often insist that education is well-financed, educators and politicians attempt to cast doubt on those figures, saying that recent budget cuts have devastated Israeli education. "We don't lack funding in the system," insisted Tel Aviv University economist Dr. Dan Ben-David. According to figures he presented to the committee, Israeli schoolchildren receive 13.5% more instruction hours than the average among developed countries (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development member states). There are almost exactly the same number of teachers per pupil in the system, and public expenditure per pupil relative to the standard of living is 23% higher in Israel than the OECD average. Yet, for all the positive figures about investment into the educational system, Ben-David says, the system fails to produce the necessary results. The average teachers salary (crucially, also corrected for the standard of living) is 36% lower than OECD countries for a starting elementary school teacher, and 42% lower for the same teacher with 15 years experience. Despite the fact that there are enough paid study hours, classrooms are enormous, with 5.1 pupils more in each elementary school class than the OECD average, rising to an excess of 7.4 per classroom in high school. The system also doesn't produce the expected results in student achievement. While in 1963, Israel took first place in international standardized test rankings, it dropped precipitously since the 1980's, reaching 39th place by 1999. By 2002, Israel was 30th, 31st and 33rd in reading comprehension, mathematics and science, even ranking below countries such as Thailand and Romania from which it imports foreign workers. These results, Ben-David concluded, show that the money doesn't go to the right places. Dr. Ami Valensky, also of Tel Aviv University, did not dispute Ben-David's figures directly, but took issue with the implication that the funding to the education system should be cut. "Many countries have been pumping billions of dollars into education out of an understanding that it's the only way to compete in the international economy," Valensky noted. "In Israel, not only have we failed to increase investment, we've cut NIS 3.5 billion since 2000." While he admitted that "we have special problems in Israel, such as a high rate of immigrant absorption and a large number of languages," Valensky insisted that the solution to Israel's education woes was to significantly increase the funding to the Education Ministry over the long term. Following Ben-David's presentation, MK Ronit Tirosh, a former director-general of the Education Ministry, asked "where all the money is going. Teachers' salaries are low, classes are cramped and the total hours of face-to-face teaching are few." "The numbers don't add up for me," complained MK Michael Melchior, chairman of the committee. "We're always hearing that there's no money, the budget is being cut, test scores are dropping, teachers' salaries are among the lowest in the West, 6,000 classrooms and 1,000 kindergartens aren't being built, safety hazards aren't fixed, instruction hours have fallen...and the whole time our spending is the same as the OECD average? How can this be?" he demanded. "I don't know," replied Ben-David, insisting he was not an educator, but an economist. "I can only measure what goes in and what comes out. The middle, the black box we call the educational system, I can't measure economically." Nevertheless, Melchior said, "the cutting of millions of shekels to teacher training is a big bluff of the Finance Ministry. How can you cut that and expect people to go into teaching?" The first committee meeting dealing with the budget ended with most participants more confused than they had entered. Questions surrounding the education budget will be reexamined in a committee meeting with Education Minister Yuli Tamir on Wednesday, and then again in a meeting with Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson on Monday next week.