Courting education

Parents of east J'lem have petitioned the High Court of Justice to force the municipality to provide classrooms for their children.

east jlem school 88 (photo credit: )
east jlem school 88
(photo credit: )
even-year old Ihab (not his real name), a resident of the Old City, is jealous of his friends and even his own cousins. Every day they pass by his house early in the morning on their way to school, wearing school uniforms and proudly holding colorful schoolbags. But Ihab doesn't go to school. September 1 has long passed, but Ihab and thousands of other children in east Jerusalem haven't started their school year yet. According to official data of Ministry of Education, there are 85 public schools in east Jerusalem, where 2,539 teachers teach in 1,055 classrooms. Ihab's parents say that they tried to enroll him in any of the schools in the area, but were told that due to the shortage of classrooms he could not be registered for any of the public schools. The municipal authorities referred them to the private schools. "We didn't know what to do," says Ihab's mother, who is too embarrassed by the situation to disclose her name. "We are a large family and we simply cannot afford a private school for him. So we told him that he will go to school next year. Hopefully the situation will be different then and we will be able to register him in a public school." But according to Ir Amim, an Israeli organization that has been monitoring the situation in east Jerusalem, there is a deficit of 1,155 classrooms in east Jerusalem, and the municipality has not fulfilled its legal obligation to build the classrooms to which the children, whose parents hold Israeli (blue) ID cards and pay municipal taxes, are entitled. Unless the municipality acts quickly, by the year 2010 there will be a deficit of 1,643 classrooms. There are nearly 65,000 school-age children in east Jerusalem, but only 44,000 (according to the Ministry of Education) or 36,000 (according to Ir Amim) have been admitted to the public schools. The exact number of children who are not attending school at all is not known, since the municipality refuses to register the children for the schools once they are full and therefore has no official record. "Of course there is a deficiency in classrooms, since the government hasn't built any schools here for almost 40 years," says Fadel Tahboub, a Jerusalemite dignitary and a resident of Wadi Joz. Tahboub also attempted to register his children in the public schools, and he, like Ihab's parents, was told that there was no room for them. Tahboub's children now attend private schools, "not because they [the schools] are better," he says, "but because this is the only option available to us." It costs him between NIS 3,000 and NIS 4,000 a year in tuition to send his first-grader to a private school. "Naturally, if you have more then one school-age child at home, it's a tremendous economic burden, but what we are to do?" he says. "Our kids are entitled to be admitted to public schools just like all the other kids in Israel, but we are forced to send them to private schools because the government doesn't want to invest any money in us," he says bitterly. In fact, according to Ir Amim and municipal officials, the necessary funds for building the additional classrooms and schools in east Jerusalem have been allocated many times in the past by various Israeli governments, and the educational crisis in east Jerusalem is not new. In 1994, under prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the government approved a budget for a three-year program which was to include construction of 60 classrooms a year. Even this allocation would have been far from adequate, however, and according to Ir Amim only 107 classrooms were actually constructed. In 2001, when children from east Jerusalem who were denied education in public schools appealed to the High Court of Justice, the court instructed the Municipality and the Education Ministry to build 245 more classrooms. The municipality and the ministry announced that they were launching another, four-year program and would build these additional classrooms. In fact, they built only 47 classrooms. "The remaining 198 classrooms exist only in virtual reality, official reports, and the imaginations of the children in east Jerusalem," an Ir Amim report reveals. Meanwhile, of course, the gap between the number of pupils and the number of classrooms continues to grow. Classes are not being built, whereas every year there are new first-graders who should be integrated in the educational system. "The residents of east Jerusalem have their rights and are entitled to a public education just like any other citizen of Israel," says Amos Gil, director of Ir Amim. He adds, "According to the Compulsory Education Law, the parents of these children are required to make sure that the children do go to school. At the same time, they are refused enrollment in the existing public schools." The situation is the existing classrooms is another problem, says Gil. "Those who were lucky enough to be admitted into a public school are often studying in old, unsuitable buildings and overcrowded classrooms with 40 pupils and more that are hardly suitable for a school environment." On September 18, Ir Amim, in conjunction with the Beit Hanina Community Development Association, the Kafr Akab Residents' Committee, the Isawiya Residents' Committee, and City Council member Pepe Allalu, filed a petition to the High Court of Justice, to cite the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israeli Ministry of Education for contempt of court and requesting that they be fined accordingly, since they have not fulfilled the Court's instructions. Suhaila Abu Ghosh, assistant director of the municipal education department in charge of Arab education, told In Jerusalem that "the municipality has stood up to its obligations and there is no room for allegations regarding breach of promises or contempt-of-court rulings. "We are aware of the shortage of classrooms in east Jerusalem, and we have various action plans and solutions, both short-term and long-term, that are being implemented as we speak." In the long term, Abu Ghosh says, the municipality is building new schools. "Just this year we opened a new school in Beit Hanina and the first girls' school in Sur Bahir will be completed in a few months, in addition to four kindergartens, also in Sur Bahir. But building takes time, and we also offer short-term temporary solutions, such as rides to other schools, subleasing buildings to create more classrooms, and second shifts, although these are the last and least preferable option." Yet Abu Ghosh agrees that parents of children like Ihab and others whose children have not been admitted to the public schools will find little comfort in either the long-term or the short-term plans. "This unfortunate situation can be resolved only if more budgets are allocated to east Jerusalem. Since it's not the only trouble spot in the country, east Jerusalem doesn't always get the necessary attention and care," she said. Gil tells In Jerusalem that he expects that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the petition, "since there is already an obvious ruling from 2001 calling for construction of 245 classrooms. "Unfortunately all our attempts to resolve the problem out-of-court failed," Gil continues, "which left us no choice but to return to the High Court of Justice. Now we need more than a theoretical ruling - rather, we need the actual implementation of the High Court's previous ruling." The court will hear the petition in early November. Until then, Ihab and an unknown number of east Jerusalem pupils will continue to wait for the Jerusalem Municipality to provide them with the education to which they are legally entitled.