On Sunday morning, Mayor Uri Lupolianski and President Shimon Peres will inaugurate the new school year with a tour of a select number of schools and kindergartens in the city. As the VIPs make their annual rounds, overshadowing the traditionally festive occasion may be recent statistics that reveal that the capital's public education system is losing steam. Squeezed between the spectacular growth of both the Arab and haredi sectors and threatened by the growing number of "special schools" (a politically correct term to designate semi-private schools), the public school system finds itself theatened, despite the efforts of Manhi (Jerusalem Education Administration) head Benzi Nemet and his staff at Kikar Safra. According to the head of the Regional Parents' Association, Etti Binyamin, there has been a drop of 12 percent in the registration of secular and religious Zionist children in Jerusalem schools during the last five years. "We are losing the battle, despite the tremendous efforts of Nemet and his staff, for very simple reasons," says Binyamin. "The educational system in the city is not sexy enough to keep the local population here. They have a few other choices. "There is an excellent education system in Ma'ale Adumim, 20 minutes away, as well as paying lower arnona. There are also very good schools in Mevaseret Zion, and there are excellent options in Modi'in. They don't even have to lose their jobs. Most of the 16,000 locals who left Jerusalem last year continue to work here, they just move their family somewhere else in the region and benefit from a few advantages they cannot get here - first and foremost among them a better educational system." She adds: "What we are experiencing now is a real, somewhat cruel race between the public schools and the reality on the ground and the prospects are not very encouraging." At his office at Kikar Safra, Nemet says he is considering moving in for the next week, since he hardly finds the time to get home. The ushering in of the new school year brings complexities that burden the staff with many additional hours. He is familiar with the figures Binyamin quotes - after all, his office is one of the main sources for them - but refuses to let them get to him. "The drop in registration is not the whole picture," he says. "The fact is we are opening this year, for the first time in many years, 11 new kindergartens in the public school system. These 11 kindergartens represent a new and promising renewal for the entire public school system, and we will see its impact in the next couple of years. "The actual trend is no longer a continuing drop but rather a stabilization, a fragile one I agree, but still the direction is moving to stability in the registration figures. We even witnessed recently a case of one Chabad school which decided to join the public system - I see that as a real gain." Nemet admits that by joining the public system the Chabad school will save money - public system means public money - but says that by taking this step, the Chabad school administrators will be obligated to include in their curriculum Zionist studies and courses in civics. "Education is a long-term effort," Nemet insists. "Wherever I can step in, as a representative of the state, and bring in Zionist values, like civics, history, literature and democracy, and make the connection to the state and self-governance, I am willing to pay the price." THE BATTLE for education, as it is sometimes called by some principals and active parents, is first and foremost a battle of identity. At the beginning of the Zionist movement in Israel, Zionists fought against a religious Jewish educational system that refused to accept Hebrew as a teaching language, and today in Jerusalem, public education with a Zionist orientation seems to be in danger. "Today, 60 years after the creation of the state, it's almost unbelievable but the battle is still to be fought," explains one veteran principal, who asked not to be identified. "The private Orthodox education system is still here, alive and spreading, and the secular public, those who can afford it, prefer the semi-private system. The public schools, which should represent the values for which we fought, like Zionism, democracy and autonomy, are neglected and we might lose the battle." The education system in Jerusalem is the largest and most complicated in the country, with 222,000 students comprising various groupings of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian populations, and distributed among more than 1,000 officially-recognized public, private, semi-private, public religious and private religious schools. Jerusalem's special concerns make it the only city administered as a region unto itself by the Ministry of Education. According to municipal figures, the institutions under the city's jurisdiction (public and semi-private) comprise 98,410 students, including some 40,000 students from the Arab sector. An additional 20,000 students are registered in the private schools in east Jerusalem. In the haredi "official" school system, 86,876 students are registered, whereas some 15,000 students are set to study this year in the "unofficial," i.e. private, haredi schools, mostly in the non- and anti-Zionist streams. The terms "official" and "recognized" with reference to educational institutions needs some clarification. In addition to the public, municipal-run schools, Jerusalem also offers a special system of "recognized but unofficial" institutions. Such schools, which have large degrees of educational freedom, receive two-thirds of their budgets from the state, while parents and philanthropy make up the rest. Originally, these schools were intended to mostly serve the religious community, but over the last decade this term has grown to include "special" or semi-private schools. These schools offer a specialization in a particular subject, discipline or ideological ethos, spanning from performing arts to science and math, nature, progressive Judaism, bilingualism, anthroposophism and more. The special curriculum, coupled with a lower student-teacher ratio (about 25 students per class instead of the 39-41 allowed by the Education Ministry), come at a price - and we're talking about thousands of shekels a year. While most of these schools offer scholarships, many parents hesitate to request financial aid, and prefer instead to register their children in the regular public schools. For years, some parents have charged that "special school" is just another word for private elitist institution, whose only role is to exclude children from underprivileged neighborhoods. The issue is further complicated by the ongoing debate about school integration, a long-standing policy that attempted to bring students of different socio-economic backgrounds together but which sometimes prevented students from being registered in their own neighborhood schools. The rise of the semi-private schools created a situation where many students from middle-class backgrounds are removed from the integration system altogether. And today, while the old system of "integratzia" is not officially dead, its presence is hardly felt, since the municipality has now implemented the recommendations of the Lavie Report. "This year the full program has been established," Nemet explains, referring to the report. "We have completed the division of the city into three areas, and any student is entitled to register wherever he or she decides within their area. We offer such a wide range of choices that I can assure that this year we will not witness cases of kids who can't study where they wish." The three quarters are: North (Pisgat Ze'ev, Neveh Ya'acov, Ramot, French Hill, Ma'alot Dafna, Shmuel Hanavi), south (Talpiot and Talpiot Mizrah, Baka, the moshavim, Katamon and Katamonim, Center, Gilo) and southwest (Kiryat Yovel, Kiryat Menahem, Ir Ganim, Beit Hakerem, Ein Kerem, Bayit Vagan and Ramat Sharet). Another change this year is that students who live in the moshavim and other communities around Jerusalem will no longer enjoy the privilege of reserved places in the local schools, but will be taken into account after Jerusalem residents are registered. Also this year, the after-school enrichment program, which was launched five years ago to offer supplementary studies in law, economics, astrophysics, museum studies, computers, dance, music, ecology and chemistry, will be enlarged and enhanced in cooperation with the Hebrew University, the Belmonte Labs, the Israel Museum, the Yellow Submarine and Hadassah-University Hospital. IN GENERAL, Nemet sounds rather optimistic. In his view, the close collaboration between his department and the Education Ministry, especially the launching of the New Horizon project between the ministry and the Teachers Association, should assure a brighter future for education. The project aims to raise wages for teachers and principals by various means, including an additional five hours of teaching per week. "The teachers will be better paid and their supplementary hours will not go just for more regular teaching, but will be used for supporting small groups of students who need extra help. Isn't this what we have been asking for? And the additional budgets that the ministry has approved - NIS 4 million over five years - is that nothing?" Nemet asks. "This year, for the first time, we are going to give special attention to the most gifted students in primary and high schools," he adds. "We have an obligation toward the less gifted, it is our duty, but it's time we remember that gifted children also deserve our attention and extra programs adapted to their skills. This year, we are starting in 10 secular and religious Zionist schools a special program to enhance their talents and skills in technology, pedagogy, computers and in the study of democracy. "For the first time, we can say loud and clear that we are not ashamed to pamper the gifted, in addition to our ongoing duty to those less gifted. Because I believe that good education serves both to lift up from above and at the same time to push up from below." In addition to these changes, Nemet says, deputy municipal director-general Yehudit Shalvi, his predecessor as the head of Manhi, is leaving Kikar Safra to head a new institution. "Shalvi will head a new project we have developed here, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, to train a new generation of principals who will educate tomorrow's children. It's a dramatic move, and it's not a small thing that the staff which will create this institution come from this department. I think it speaks for itself." Binyamin, who says she has the highest respect for Nemet and his efforts, is less optimistic. "It's nice to get money from the government, but as long as the sum allocated by the municipality for each child studying here is only NIS 620 a year, the message doesn't get through - because NIS 620 per child taken from our property taxes means that the order of priority in this administration is all wrong. And because we all know that money is not only a means, it is first and foremost a message. "As long as parents understand that in this city public money goes for all kind of things - from the light rail to anything else - but not for education, they will go elsewhere," she says. She continues: "We are witnessing, year after year, and this year even more, a worrying phenomenon. Every school, which has fewer and fewer registered children, invents new gimmicks to literally seduce the parents. "Take for example the case of the Argentina School in Kiryat Yovel. They had only two kids for the first grade registered this year, so they couldn't open a class. Manhi came with an idea: Let's go to Ein Kerem, a more 'prestigious' neighborhood, and let's seduce them with a first-grade 'art school.' It worked out, and with the approval of the Argentina School's Parents Association and the Regional Parents Association, the Argentina School will open one class in a rented location in Ein Kerem. "Next year, perhaps, they will be able to save the school and to move it to Ein Kerem. Of course, the kids from Kiryat Yovel will have to be driven to and back from Ein Kerem. But the price is that they had to play a kind of a role. What is this thing about an 'art school' for first graders? But if the school had a sufficient budget, good teachers and a principal who has the right to choose the best staff and didn't have to worry where he is going to get the money from, maybe they wouldn't have needed this kind of gimmick. "Today, principals have been reduced to the level of financial clerks, instead of [dealing with] pedagogy. And it's a shame. The only way to dramatically change the course of things is to put huge budgets toward education. It's so simple and yet this administration fails, year after year, to understand it." Nemet, for his part, asserts that money is being put toward education. "I believe in action on the ground," he says. "This year, we are investing NIS 8m. in embellishing school grounds. For example, we have changed the paintings, with more happy colors; a school has to be inviting physically. "Also, we spent NIS 20m. this summer on repairs and renovations in schools and kindergartens. We are adding 1,000 computers to the city's schools, including east Jerusalem. And 20 new principals are joining our staff, young individuals dedicated to education, who will certainly improve many things. We are continuing the 'Jerusalem is Clean' campaign in the schools, which has seen success. And were are continuing the Mosaic Project, which entitles every child in the city to an annual visit to the capital's historical and cultural sites." Binyamin insists that without Nemet, "things would probably be much worse. He is a light in the darkness of the educational state in Jerusalem. He is a real educator, he believes in long-term processes, he is dedicated and he is certainly not the problem, in fact he is the only one who keep things above the water." "The problem," she says, "is a political one. In order to face the situation, we need bold and courageous decisions, otherwise only the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs will stay in Jerusalem, and I am not talking about decades from now but about in a few years. "In certain neighborhoods it is already happening. People do not leave this city because of terror, or because they are not pleased with the local night life, but because they are not sure they can obtain the best education for their kids here. It's time somebody up there understood that."