MKs rally to fight cuts in education budget

Rivlin: Additional reductions could collapse system.

school strike 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
school strike 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The proposed NIS 750 million cut to the Education Ministry's budget has triggered a backlash in the Knesset that crosses party lines, as those opposing the move are banding together to fight it, Education Committee head Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. On Monday, Orlev, along with MKs Ronit Tirosh (Kadima), Ilan Gilon (Meretz), Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) and Masud Gnaim (UAL-Ta'al) wrote letters to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin urging him to include the issue in the plenum session on the budget. "I have succeeded in creating a coalition of a number of MKs who will try and change minds within the government over these budget cuts," said Orlev. "The government will vote on the budget this coming Tuesday," he continued. "And if we can't stop it there, it will go to the Finance Committee, where we'll try again to convince a majority of members to change the budget." Later Tuesday, Rivlin joined the opponents of the cuts, telling a meeting of the Education Committee that he was "firmly against further cuts to the education budget." "The Education Ministry is already suffering from a deficit of nearly NIS 1 billion, and we cannot increase that with more budget cuts," he said, adding that education was the "soul of the State of Israel, and any additional cuts could bring about the collapse of the system." Meanwhile, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who voted against the proposed budget cuts at Sunday's cabinet meeting, gave an impassioned speech to the Knesset on Tuesday afternoon. He lamented the country's already low international test scores in math and science and told MKs, "I asked [ministry director-general] Dr. Shimshon Shoshani to come back to this job for a third time, because I believe we can solve these problems and turn the education system around." However, he said, these cuts would make that much more difficult. The cuts, which would translate into a reduction of 107,000 teaching hours from the school year and endanger the jobs of some 5,400 teachers, have also sparked an outcry from Education Ministry officials and the Union of Local Authorities. According to Orlev, one source of the cutbacks is the previous Education Ministry's New Horizon reform program, which came with a hefty price tag. "The obsession of the [previous] Education Ministry to push forward with New Horizon ended up with [former education minister] Yuli Tamir signing off on a deal that would transfer payments into future budget cuts. The total price of the reform was close to NIS 1 billion, which is some of what we're seeing now," he said. No budget cuts occurred under Tamir, who delayed the implementation of several cutbacks with the approval of former prime minister Ehud Olmert. "But it's not just New Horizon," Orlev continued. "There's no way to cut the education budget without cutting teachers and teaching hours. What we need is to implement a strategic plan that will deal with the problems facing our education system, because we're sinking terribly in our international standings - not to mention our level of Zionist and Jewish education." Earlier Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Sa'ar echoed Orlev's comments, telling the Post that "basically, the Education Ministry is being held responsible for unpaid bills from its previous administrators, and if these cuts go through, if we're made to foot the bill for New Horizon, we won't have any money to work on the issues that Minister Sa'ar has pledged to tackle. Raising the international standings in math and science, and closing the gaps between urban areas and the periphery, won't be possible if we don't have any money." On Monday, the Union of Local Authorities warned about the wave of dismissals in the education system due to the expected budget cuts. It said that in addition to the thousands of teachers who would be laid off as a result of the cuts, psychologists, secretaries and janitors were also in danger of losing their lobs. The union also said it expected that departments for youth development would close and that schooling costs would increase. Union of Local Authorities chairman Shlomo Buhbut held emergency consultations Monday and announced that a management meeting would be convened on Thursday. "The education system is dying, and the government is making sure that they kill it," Buhbut said on Monday. "Pupils' accomplishments are dropping, and today we are at the bottom end of the rankings. How do you expect the students to succeed if the system around them is collapsing?" Buhbut said the cuts would deepen rifts, shorten school days and send the education system down into the abyss. "We all agree that advancing education is a national priority," he continued, "and therefore, I'm dismayed at the lack of responsibility of the government, which is destroying education instead of advancing it." Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.