Let the education debate begin

One of the frustrating aspects of Israel's electoral system is that voters never know for certain which parties will be part of the coalition. Nor do voters know on election day which politicians will be appointed ministers. The coalition problem results from the fragmentation that has marked our party map for the entire 57 years since Israel's inception. This extreme form of proportional representation was inherited from the pre-state World Zionist Organization and has perpetuated a situation in which no party, in 16 national elections, has ever garnered enough seats to rule without the support of smaller parties. Regrettably, no sign of reform is in the offing. But the quandary of never knowing who will head which ministry could be solved by adopting the British parliamentary practice of having shadow governments in which the leaders of the party in the opposition are assigned responsibility for specific ministries, which, it is assumed, they will head if their party wins the next election. Proposals to adopt such a practice in Israel have always been rejected because the coalition system made it impossible to know ahead of the elections which party would get which ministry. I suspect, however, that the real explanation is connected with the premier's desire to use ministry appointments to control the behavior of members of his own party. THE WORST example of nasty internal power politics took place following Ariel Sharon's last election victory. It was widely surmised that Meir Shetreet, who had proven his loyalty to Sharon, would receive the education portfolio he coveted. Instead Sharon kept prospective party colleagues on tenterhooks, then took joy in keeping the ministry out of Shetreet's hands and giving it to Limor Livnat - who didn't want it. I still remember the look of consternation on Livnat's face on TV when she emerged from Sharon's office having learned on a "take it or leave it" basis that that was the ministry Sharon meant to give her. The wasteland Livnat left behind in the school system and in higher education following a series of mortal budgetary cuts which she hardly fought was a reflection of her original feelings. The blame for the educational catastrophe of these past few years should be shared by Sharon, who chose to play musical chairs with his ministerial candidates. THE PRESENT elections offer the possibility of doing better for the education ministry. It all depends on the outcome of the balloting, but six weeks ahead of election day public opinion polls consistently make it relatively safe to predict that Kadima with Ehud Olmert at its head will emerge as the largest coalition-forming party. Labor and Likud will be competing for second and third place. So the next government will likely be formed by Olmert and Kadima, in coalition with Labor and one or more of the haredi parties. There are two self-declared front-runners to head the education ministry: Prof. Uriel Reichman of Kadima, formerly chairman of the Shinui Party and founder and head of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, and MK Yuli Tamir of Labor, who has been a very active member of the Knesset Education Committee. Both are sure to get into the next Knesset, with Tamir in fifth place on Labor's list and Reichman No.11 on the Kadima roster. What the two share is a commitment to restoring the ruinous education budget cuts of the past three years. On everything else they seem to be poles apart. Tamir, who terms herself a "social-democrat," believes that the education system should be reformed nearly entirely from a vastly enlarged publicly controlled state budget; Reichman, as a neo-liberal, favors a significant measure of competition between schools and attracting large-scale investment in public schooling from private entrepreneurs. Reichman is also on record as backing the Dovrat reform proposals, which outgoing minister Livnat did not succeed in implementing primarily due to the opposition of the two teachers unions. Tamir, on the other hand, believes that reform of the system is only possible through cooperation with the unions. There is also a difference in emphasis between the two, with Reichman apparently attaching greater importance to changes in higher education and Tamir concentrating on introducing reforms in pre-school education. Which of the two stands a better chance of becoming education minister will depend primarily on the division of the major portfolios - defense, foreign affairs and finance - between the two leading parties, with the allocation of the education portfolio being a balancing factor. But the open race between Reichman and Tamir should provide a welcome opportunity for them to engage in a series of public debates not only on budgetary and organizational questions, but on matters of educational philosophy, too.