Shortage of classrooms in east Jerusalem mars start of school year

State schools - which provide free education - can accommodate less than half the number of east Jerusalem pupils entitled to compulsory education, according to a report issued on the eve of the opening of the school year by the advocacy groups The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Ir Amim. The rest of the children attend, by choice or lack of choice, recognized but unofficial schools, Wakf-sponsored or private schools while another 5,500 are not registered in any educational institution and may not be going to school at all, the report stated. The tuition in many of the private schools is high. Furthermore, out of a total of 1,360 classrooms currently available in east Jerusalem, 704 are substandard while only 656 meet government criteria. Of the sub-standard classrooms, 221 operate in structures that are defined as "unsuitable." The report also found that the municipal authorities do not keep records of all the children who seek to register in state schools. Therefore, the exact extent of the need for additional classrooms is unknown. The report blamed the government and the municipality of Jerusalem for failing to keep promises it had made over the years to the High Court of Justice, in response to petitions by Palestinian Arab parents who could not find room for their children in the state schools. In 2001, the government promised to build 245 classrooms by 2005. In 2007, it pledged to build another 400 by 2012. In another forum, the government promised to build 8,000 new classrooms throughout Israel, including in east Jerusalem. "Despite this," the report maintained, "through the two-and-a-half years since then, the authorities have dragged their feet in discharging their obligations while the shortage of classrooms has only increased." The report stated that only 39 classrooms were under construction over the past year, even though there was enough empty land available immediately, by appropriation, to build 385 more. Even if the city executes all its plans, it will only manage to build 415 new classrooms by 2011 of the promised 645. By that time, the population growth in east Jerusalem will mean that 1,500 classrooms are lacking, according to the report. The new classrooms will fill 27 percent of that need. The Municipality of Jerusalem responded angrily to the report and charged that the data presented by Acri and Ir Amim was "distorted" and "did not stick to the facts." According to a communiqué, the city is "advancing" the construction of 248 classrooms, of which 174 are in advanced planning stages, 24 are under construction and a public tender has been issued for 38 more. Sixteen kindergartens are either planned, under construction or built, according to the municipality. Furthermore, in the past two years, the city has completed construction of about 200 classrooms. These figures would roughly add up to the same figures included in the report - that is, 448 new classrooms compared with 415 in the report. The municipality did not say whether it had built any new classrooms between 2001 and 2007. Arab residents of metropolitan Jerusalem pay Arnona taxes but generally boycott municipal elections and have no representation on the municipal council.