Not making the grade

Jerusalem leads the country in inequality between schools. What went wrong?

schoolgirl (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In the late Sixties, Zalman Aranne, the education minister from the Mapai Party, initiated a broad-based reform of the educational system. "Integration," he called it. By bringing children from different backgrounds into the same schools, the minister predicted, he could accelerate Israel's melting-pot ideal and cut down the gaps between the haves and have nots in Israeli society. Eli Haim, a retired principal of a Jerusalem school, remembers those days. "It began in 1967, after the waves of new immigrants, after the reparations from Germany, after the terrible recession of 1964-1966. Prosperity had begun, especially in the large cities. There was a real concern that the egalitarian ethos wouldn't survive." "Aranne, who was a true defender of socialist and egalitarian ideals, believed there was a need to bring children together - whether they were immigrants or veterans, rich or poor," Haim continues. "We didn't have 'special' schools back then, everybody studied the same [government-mandated] programs and all the kids wore uniforms." Aranne's reform was initially implemented as a pilot program in only a few cities - with Jerusalem the most prominent among them. The pilot was considered successful, approved by the government and by 1969, the program was implemented throughout the country. Integration brought structural and social change. While maintaining neighborhood elementary schools, integration created the junior high school, a three-year link between primary and high school where kids from more and less affluent neighborhoods would begin to integrate. Since each primary school was linked to a particular junior high school and since the linkages were drawn in order to further the integration, the plan seemed to work, particularly in Jerusalem. "In Tel Aviv, kids had to be transported from the southern neighborhoods to the north. In Jerusalem, the mix was fairly easy to achieve, at least technically. Since wealthy, affluent neighborhoods are often very close - sometimes separated only by a narrow street - from poor, depressed neighborhoods, there was no need for busing, it was only a walking distance away," recalls Maya Choshen, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. But as the new school year begins, the paradox is clear. In the 1960s, Aranne made a bold attempt to create an equal and egalitarian school system in Jerusalem. In 2006, Yuli Tamir, also an education minister from the Labor Party, will have to admit: In Jerusalem, perhaps more than any other city in the nation, integration has failed. According to a recent survey issued by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the neighborhood in which a child lives still has the greatest influence on his or her chances of receiving a quality education and succeeding in the matriculation (bagrut) exams. The results are conclusive: There is a direct, incontrovertible link between parents' income level (which is almost completely correlated with living in a better environment) and their children's chances to succeed in the education system. Simply put, students who live in wealthier neighborhoods do better than students who live in poorer neighborhoods, no matter what schools they go to. In 2002, the survey showed that in some areas of Jerusalem the matriculation rates are as high as 80 and even 100 percent, while in others they are as low as 20 and under. And as Shmulik David, an education lobbyist working with Shatil, an organizational support group for the New Israel Fund, observes, "Everybody knows that it's mostly Mizrahim [Sephardim] and new immigrants, especially from Ethiopia, who live in the poor neighborhoods." The reasons for the situation are many; the solutions are unclear. In Jerusalem, the changing structure of neighborhoods provides part of the explanation. "The large changes in the population of the city and its new pattern of distribution made integration harder and harder to achieve," notes Choshen. "Jerusalem is no longer a little city with small neighborhoods all close to each other. We have large areas, built after 1967, in which all the citizens are from similar backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. You don't have to make an effort to 'melt' them - they are simply the same." But Choshen, like other experts, says the reasons are much deeper than that. Danny Gottwein of The University of Haifa points to the changing national ethos. "The Dovrat Report was the official announcement of the premature death of integration. The report allows for triaging of students according to their socioeconomic level. This opened the door to an attitude that will continue throughout life," says Gottwein. "We are already seeing this in the army. We can see who serves in the air force and who serves in Golani [infantry brigade]." Yehuda Bar-Shalom, a lecturer at the David Yellin teachers' college, has studied the educational system and written a book on the topic, Educating Israel: Educational Entrepreneurship in Israel's Multicultural Society (published by Palgrave Macmillan). In the past, he writes, integration has meant a rejection of any person, idea or culture that didn't meet the prototype of the monolithic Israeli (that is, Ashkenazi) identity. Quoting from page 113 in his book, Bar-Shalom writes, "Many people have been injured due to the rising level of alienation in Western consumer societies. This alienation leads many to seek alternatives to the social interaction that is gradually vanishing from the human landscape. "There has also been a decline in the level of public discourse relating to the search for common goals and values. A growing tendency to nihilism accentuates the emergence of materialism and extensive consumerism as ostensibly desirable models for human behavior." Attempts to "kill" integration, says Gottwein, didn't begin with the Dovrat Report, which, he believes, reflects the prevailing national ethos as well as promotes it. As long as 30 years ago, parents had begun an attempt to circumvent and "trick" attempts to equalize education, seeking to provide an "edge" for their children. "It started," he recalls, "with what we called back then the 'gray education.' As schools offered less, parents from higher socioeconomic levels bought extracurricular enrichment classes for their children, and then began to provide them with private classes. So the equality that the system was supposed to introduce ceased to exist." The "coup de grace," says Gottwein, came with the "invasion of the amutot [non-profit organizations], which enabled the state to avoid its obligations." By organizing themselves as non-profit organizations and by taking advantage of loopholes in the legislation (paradoxically, these loopholes were originally intended for the haredim), parents were able to avoid the public system and send their children to "special schools." Jerusalem, says Choshen, has more special schools than any other school system in Israel - not just per capita, but even in absolute terms. Viewed positively, this can be seen as democratic. "In terms of pluralism in educational options, there is no other city like Jerusalem," she observes. But special schools are not solely about choice and pluralism. They are also about avoidance - of the system as much as of the children from the lower socioeconomic strata who are supposed to be "integrated" into the system. Facing seemingly endless cut-backs in the educational system as Jerusalem's tax base depletes due to the flight of the middle class, a democracy deficit that leaves allocations to secular and state religious schools far behind allocations to haredi schools, privatization and principals forced to perform as CEOs rather than as educators and a demoralized Education Ministry with burned out, often incompetent teachers, many parents feel they have no choice. If they want to provide their children with a decent education and a leg-up into Israel's competitive society, they feel they must pay for it. "Special schools are code names for private schools," explains David. "Parents who can afford it, or who decide that education will top every thing else in their family budget, move their kids to special schools. Payments there vary from NIS 8,000 to up to NIS 13,000. Obviously, not all families can afford this." Even middle-class parents often cannot afford this, even if there is only than one child in the family. But as the parents regularly repeat, "What choice do they have?" "Public schools, which should provide the best tools for equality, are being deserted by the stronger and more established populations," David explains. "Those left behind are those who, from the very beginning, have less or even no chance at all to make it - the poor, the underprivileged. And in our society, that means the Mizrahim and the immigrants from Ethiopia. They are doomed to the lowest level of education, which is a prediction that they are doomed to the lowest levels of employment in the future. "I don't blame parents who, out of concern for their own children, decide to move them into the top special schools," continues David. "The struggle to improve the public education system shouldn't be placed on the shoulders of the individual child or family. It is a matter for the education establishment, for the state." The new school year began this week, yet Leah, a young mother of two, says she gives her children's school one month to show improvement. "I am from a Kurdish background," Leah says. "I was raised in the Katamonim, my whole family still lives there and I don't live far away. My dream is to give my kids, a 10-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, the best education. Certainly better than the education I received. "I have registered them at the local school. In every class, more than half of the children are new immigrants from Ethiopia. They don't know Hebrew, they don't understand, and, in frustration, they misbehave. "I want to support integration, I want to offer those kids the best, too, but I am not ready for my kids to pay the price. This year is the first time that they have finally brought in someone who will work with the Ethiopian children and translate and intervene for them. "If I see improvement, I'll keep my children there," Leah concludes. "If not, I'll move them to a special school. I know it sounds awful coming from me - a kid from the Katamonim. But you don't solve a problem by creating a new one." Bar-Shalom says that while Jerusalem has the higher number of special schools, the majority of them were created by parents who hold genuine social-democratic ideals, mostly out of a real impulse to improve the system. Amalia illustrates the dilemma. A mother of three children, she and her family live in a poor Jerusalem neighborhood that is gradually undergoing a process of gentrification. Although her income is higher than most of her neighbors', Amalia chose the neighborhood because of the high cost of housing in Jerusalem's better, more upscale neighborhoods. Amalia recalls that when her oldest child reached seventh grade, the time he had to chose a junior high school, she realized for the first time that she had to choose between her ideology and her children's education. "As a mother, I wanted the best for my daughter," she says. "As a social-democrat who strongly believes in equality, I wanted to be part of my community. My family and friends all tried to convince me not to send my daughter to the junior high school to which she was assigned by Manhi (the Jerusalem Education Administration) and to send her to a special school, where her friends were already going. "I felt tortured. And when I finally registered her for the special school, I couldn't look some of my neighbors in the eyes. And yet later on, I heard that most of them didn't expect me to act any differently. One of the neighbors told me that if she had had the means, she wouldn't have hesitated. That made me feel even worse. The bottom line is money. I don't have much, but at least I could make a choice - a choice that some of my neighbors couldn't even dream of. "I feel that I betrayed my neighbors and that I was betrayed. The state betrayed me by putting me in this situation. After all, isn't the best and equal education for our children exactly what we pay taxes for and what we deserve?" In his study, a comparative ethnography of five Israeli schools, including the Kedma school in Jerusalem, Bar-Shalom repeatedly refers to the "ideology of social repair." Israeli society must be mended, he says, and this mending will necessarily require an encounter with the "other." But too often, this meeting has meant the rejection of anyone who did not meet the prototypic ideal of the new (Ashkenazi) Israeli. Arye Barnea, an educator best remembered in Jerusalem for reversing the dire situation of the Denmark School in the Katamonim a few years ago, still discusses integration positively. "Without it," he contends, "we would still have harsh ethnic segregation. We would not have the high level of inter-ethnic marriages that we now have, which has jumped from less than 10% in the 1960s to more than 30% today." Looking at the proverbial half-full glass, Barnea says that "the fact that so many Mizrahi young people have succeeded in politics, the army and the economic system is due first and foremost to integration." Barnea adds that the message conveyed by integration is no less important than its actual achievements. "If you send a kid to a weak school, he will understand that he is not equal to the others, and besides the disastrous psychological message, how can you then speak to this child about equality and social solidarity?" Others disagree. "Originally, integration was intended to fight against the ethnic segregation," says Shlomo Svirski, director of the Adva Center for Social Equality in Israel. "But today, the problem is not ethnic. Although we still see a correlation between ethnic and economic status, the main distinction is class segregation. It's all about money." In today's schools, as every parent knows, parents are required to pay a supplementary payment beyond the payment demanded by the government. "It's the face of Israeli society that we see reflected in the education system," he says. "The system's mission is to provide equal and free education. By not doing so, it is in fact betraying its citizens. From the moment money became the tool that defines who will get what kind of education, it became a betrayal." David warns that the situation will get worse. As Manhi attempts to curb the flight of the stronger populations into the special schools by setting neighborhood quotas intended to create diverse populations in public schools, parents come up with new ways to give their children the advantages they believe they need and deserve. "In some public schools, some parents who have the means now pay a supplement in order to create separate small classes for their kids within the school," says David. "They appear to have chosen the public egalitarian school, but in fact, they have created segregation within the same institution. In other schools, they have created separate classrooms for exceptional and talented children. The result is that, in the same school, some kids are much more equal than others. There are those whose parents have money and those whose parents don't. And this is happening in the public system." Although many point to the special schools as the root of the problem, others, like Bar-Shalom, say that they could point to the solution. "We have to learn from success, to develop educational initiatives that will bring educational leaders who have succeeded elsewhere back into the public system," says Bar-Shalom. He points out that while most of the special schools are in fact elitist, there are other examples. "The Kedma school is not elitist; they took in children from deprived backgrounds and proved that these kids can learn and achieve, if you take the trouble to listen to them and work with them in the right way. For years, the system has told us that nothing good can come of these kids and then - surprise, surprise - when given the right conditions, these kids study, get good grades, finish their matriculation examples, exactly like any other 'good' kid.'" Other schools in Jerusalem known for their integrative success include the Bereshit school in Kiryat Menahem and the Tali Beit Hinuch school in Katamon. Even Nir Barkat, a member of Jerusalem's municipal council opposition and head of the Jerusalem Will Succeed party, who is known for activism against integration, says he is not against it in principle. He believes, however, that special schools actually provide the key to better public education. Barkat received public attention when he led a group of parents to the High Court of Justice against Manhi to dissolve the rigid "catchment area" rules applied by Manhi to determine which school each child had the right to attend, thus attempting to prevent the "brain drain" into the better schools. He petitioned the court five years ago, after he was prevented from enrolling his daughter in an area outside his neighborhood of Beit Hakerem. The court ordered the municipality to establish a committee to investigate the issue. The Lavie Committee, which submitted its report three years ago, as the current city council came into power, recommended that catchment areas be opened up to allow parents a greater choice of schools in which to enrol their children. At the time, City Hall issued an official response that it would adopt the recommendation, but that it would take a while to implement. Two years ago, the municipality divided the city into four official catchment areas. The current situation is an improvement, Barkat believes, but the system is still plagued by the deficiencies of the past. "The idea behind integration was right," he declares. "The way it was done was wrong. Integration failed because the quality of teaching had become very low and Manhi imposed compulsory methods rather than improving the situation. They didn't see the reasons behind the flight to the other schools. They ignored the statistics, which pointed to supply and demand, insisting that they would decide who would study where." In Israeli society, with increasing individualism and decreasing trust in public institutions, parents weren't about to accept Manhi's dictates. "We should understand the picture. If a school is in high demand from students and parents, it means it's a success, a good school. So we should replicate it," Barkat proposes. "The rule should be that a school which isn't in demand should be handed a 'yellow flag,' put on warning. If it doesn't improve, it should become an auxiliary of a successful school, run by people who have shown that they can do better." To overcome the link between neighborhood and school achievement, Barkat suggests that the best schools should be located in the most deprived neighborhoods. That way, the stronger students will be the ones asking to move out of their neighborhoods. "Manhi believes in integration in education and is active in integrating different populations," municipal spokesman Gidi Shmerling said in a statement to In Jerusalem. "This is being carried out, among other ways, by opening registration areas, which allows pupils to choose between many schools in their areas and by placing children with special needs in regular schools, integrating Ethiopian immigrants and more." "There is no alternative to the real, profound need for integration of students from different backgrounds," Choshen concludes. "You have to create togetherness - but togetherness that has a chance to work. You have to create a true meeting between children who are different." But aware of the brain drain out of Jerusalem and the subsequent decreasing tax base that creates a vicious circle of poor schools for a poor city, Choshen also says, "The city of Jerusalem must offer something to the brighter and stronger families, too. Since we have become an individualistic society, we have to offer something to keep the gifted children in this city. If we leave the city to the underprivileged, they will remain underprivileged for life."