Expensive Choke

In Jerusalem's schools, parents are the goose that lays the golden eggs.

schools (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Although the Israeli education system still operates under legislation passed in the 1950s, which established that education would be compulsory and available to all, Israeli parents are forced to pay for their children's schooling - and in some cases, the sums are very high, indeed. According to figures from the Adva Center for Information on Equality and Social Justice in Israel, Israeli parents are forced to augment the national educational budget by approximately NIS 3 billion in order to keep their kids in school. Parents know the drill. At the beginning of each school year, teachers, principals, and representatives of the local Parents' Committee issue a list of payments, scaled according to grades and tracks. Officially, the sums can be divided into "compulsory payments" (tashlumei hova) and "optional payments" (tashlumei r'shut). According to the district Parents' Association, there are actually only two compulsory payments. Parents have to pay for insurance for their children, including over vacations and holidays, but since the insurance is arranged through the municipality, the rate is low (NIS 32 per year per child.) And some schools still charge for dental care, but in most schools, this plan was cancelled four or five years ago, since the municipality no longer subsidized it. But the reality is that many of the optional payments are considered compulsory, at least by the schools. And parents never refuse to pay the optional payments, for fear of compromising their child's position in the school. Among the items that parents pay for are school outings, the "basket of cultural events," graduation and class parties, and dues to the national and regional parents' committees. In addition, parents are expected to pay the "TALAN" (additional educational program) which is meant to provide children with art, music and other enrichment programs - although Ministry officials acknowledge that many schools, strapped for funds, use the money to pay for some of the basics - including toner for the school copy machine or toilet paper for the bathrooms. At the Henrietta Szold primary school, for example, the parents were expected to pay NIS 90 for the "culture basket," between NIS 104 and 625 for hikes (depending on the grade); and between NIS 54 and 200 for the end-of-the- year party. Text books loaned by the school can cost up to NIS 265 (although that doesn't mean that the parent won't have to add between NIS 350 and NIS 600 for additional textbooks which they will be required to purchase during the year). And then there are the additional items, unique to each school, such as payments for the "development of a learning environment" - NIS 100; and "learning projects" - NIS 150. This grand total still doesn't include lunch (at least NIS 20 a day if offered by the school), transportation, supplementary classes (including support for weaker students and more challenging classes for exceptionally talented students), after-school activities (including sports and music), and others. And this is only in elementary school. "Imagine you have more than one child," says Dalia, mother of a fifth-grader in the Szold School. "You can easily be putting out NIS 1200 or even 1800 per child, for something you're supposed to get for free. How can you expect people on lower salaries or, even worse, parents who are unemployed, to provide their children with a real chance to succeed?" Rahel Miller, head of the Parents' Committee at the Givat Gonen School says that she is "frustrated by the whole system," which exacerbates class differences and doesn't provide kids with equal opportunities. "This school operates in a disadvantaged neighborhood," she says. "People with very low incomes represent about 75 percent of the pupils. So we take only what is absolutely necessary and give up on lots of activities that we simply cannot afford." Miller says that it's difficult to collect even the compulsory payments from the parents. "Since the schools have been placed under the self-management system," she notes, "the principals and the parents' committee members have to act as fund raisers. If you're good at it, you can do lots of additional things, but if you're not, then you have nothing. The budgets allocated by the Education Ministry and Manhi (the Jerusalem Educational Authority) are simply not enough to provide a reasonable level of education." Painfully, she relates that recently, Givat Gonen Principal Iria Kirshheymer raised enough money to buy 75 computers. But Manhi refused to allocate the funding for the insurance. The school, located in a poor neighborhood, was vandalized and the computers were stolen. Kirshheymer will have to start all over again. "And what happens to schools who are not lucky enough to have such a gifted principal?" asks Miller angrily. "The answer is simple: They just don't have the same opportunities, meaning this is not a equal system. If you're rich, you can make it and if you're not, you're lost from the beginning." Miller added that she believes it should not be the principals' job to raise money and develop "the skills of a stock market broker." In the case of students in special schools, which, as reported in In Jerusalem's cover story, which is more often a code name for private schools, the situation is worse. In these schools, parental payments can reach as high as NIS 12,000 a year - not including, in the cases of the Rubin Academy and the Arts' School, for example, private lessons and rehearsals, which can bring the sum to NIS 15,000 a year. "To say that these schools are in fact open only for those who can afford it is an understatement," says a mother of student at the Rubin Academy. Each year, the Education Ministry proposes a list of the recommended and maximum amounts that schools may charge for each student and which feels should, and which should not, be made mandatory. According to the law, a student whose parents are not able, or even unwilling, to pay should never be excluded from school activities. But schools distinguish between "voluntary" payments - in which case, if a parent doesn't pay, no sanctions can be taken against the parent or the child - and "optional" payments, which the parents don't have to pay, but if they don't, the child doesn't participate in the activity. Hardly "optional", Miller notes, and reveals, "Here at Givat Gonen, we did have a case where a child was not allowed to get on the bus for a class trip because his parents didn't pay. [Payment for such trips is considered 'optional' - P.C.] And we all know that this has happened in many other schools, and that it happens all the time." Ettie Binyamin, head of the district Parents Association says that the actual situation is "unbearable and absurd. We are told this is compulsory, free education and yet, every beginning of the year, I feel we are squeezing the parents with less and less shame ... There is plenty of money in the Education Ministry, but ... this money is being used for other goals. This Ministry and by extention, the government, are telling us that the children of Israel and their education are not important enough." Until now, Binyamin says, the solution has been "to put their hands in our pockets, knowing that no parent will dare to refuse to pay the money for their children's education." Every year the Education Ministry declares that it will employ supervisors to ensure that principals do not demand excessive fees, and every year, as parents know only too well, the system continues. Harshly, Binyamin concludes, "In this country, children have no equal chances from the beginning. It seems that the system forgets that it exists to serve the citizens and not the opposite." The municipality's response to this issue was as follows: The sum requested from parents in the education system is re-assessed at the beginning of each academic year, according to the Knesset's education committee. [...] The Jerusalem education authority, through the auditing department, carries out regular supervision of school payments in the city's schools and deals with violations or unusual cases in this matter.