Registering their complaints

Jerusalem leads the country in per-capita 'special schools.' Does it matter?

student school 88 (photo credit: )
student school 88
(photo credit: )
The advertisements calling to register sixth-grade pupils for junior high school next year have already begun to appear in the local papers. They certainly are enticing, promising small classes, special enrichment programs, educational excellence, good staff-student ratios, and more. These are ads for Jerusalem's so-called special schools, Israel's unique blend of semi-private schools that ostensibly offer a concentration or specialization in a particular subject or discipline or a particular ideological ethos, spanning from performing arts to science and math, nature, progressive Judaism, bilingualism, anthroposophism and more. But as Jerusalem parents know only too well, the special curriculum is only one aspect of the specialness. Special schools are code names for schools that are small, elite, creative and successful, employ quality teachers - and are very, very expensive. Sarah Mankowsky isn't sure what to do. Sending her twin girls to a special school could cost her family a prohibitive several thousand shekels a month. But the twins are in sixth grade in a local neighborhood school, where, Mankowsky says, the classes are too big, the teachers are mediocre, and violence is rampant. She has no intention of allowing them to continue in the neighborhood junior high school where, she says, they will be subjected to more of the same. Supporters of the special schools claim that since they are successful - and competitive - they should receive more support. The opposition claims that the special schools are basically intended to create a separate, parallel school system for the rich. Special schools raise serious ethical, political and organizational questions, and these are particularly acute in Jerusalem, which has the largest number of schoolchildren in the country - and fully one half are poor. Due to the large number of students in the city and the complexity of its varied populations, Jerusalem is the only city in the country which is a region unto itself in the Education Ministry. It is one of the few systems administrated by an educational administration (well-known as "Manhi") which is composed of representatives of both the municipality and the Education Ministry. But that hasn't made the municipal education more egalitarian or more organized. Providing no clear guidance on these issues, Manhi's policies regarding special schools have been contradictory and confusing over the past few years, leaving parents, teachers, and students angry and frustrated. In fact, neither Manhi nor the Education Ministry actually even knows how many students are even studying in how many special schools. And as registration for next year's school year begins, no one seem to know what will happen. Or perhaps the Manhi officials do know.Perhaps they do have an educational philosophy and ideology to guide residents through their confusion. But if they do, they are not sharing it with the public. And Benzi Nemet, head of Manhi, repeatedly refused to be interviewed for this report. He also refused permission for anyone else from his offices to speak. Special schools appeared on the scene about two decades ago, in response to the decline of the public system. According to Neri Horowitz, ever since the late 1960s, "integratzia" has been the guiding principle of the educational system, and Jerusalem was one of the first cities to adopt its principles. Integratzia, of course, means more than integration. It is a buzzword, signifying the expectation that schools promote social solidarity and level the playing field for students from different socio-economic backgrounds. As long as the educational system remained highly centralized, educational authorities could at least attempt to maintain the integratzia. But over the years, Israelis have lost faith in government and are unwilling to place their children's education in the hands of the authorities they no longer trusted. Economic privatization further lessened the centralized hold, and the Education Ministry began to give schools financial and organizational independence, together with the authority to make decisions about their own student bodies and curricula. Add to the equation the extensive government cut backs in education budgets, which began in the 1980s and have led to overcrowded classrooms, short school days, a drop in the quality of and training of teachers, inadequate curriculum development, and growing school violence and parents, no longer bound by concepts such as social solidarity or level playing fields, parents saw fit to set up dozens of new schools that met their own ideologies and preferences, or at least met what they viewed as the minimum standards that the state was no longer providing. And Jerusalem led the way. There are several reasons for this, including the disaffected secular population, convinced that the haredim were grabbing much more than their share of the public pie; and the large numbers of families from English-speaking countries who brought with them a tradition of social assertion and - often - the resources to make things happen. Over the years, Jerusalem parents have established the experimental school, the arts school, the Masorati schools, Keshet, Kedma, Givat Gonen, the arts school for religious girls, schools based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, schools that emphasize performing arts, and the "Russian" schools such as Mofet. Officially, most of these are public schools. But first surreptitiously and then blatantly, money has become one of their defining characteristics. "It became clear that we were heading to a total destruction of the public system as we have known it, and a genuine fear that a separate, private system would be established in Israel, in addition to the haredi independent system, which would be available solely to the highest percentiles of society," says Horowitz. But even most middle-class parents couldn't afford to establish fully private schools, so they rediscovered a bureaucratic category that until then had been used primarily by the haredim - "recognized but unofficial." 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. By the mid 1990s, smart parents had realized that by establishing "recognized but unofficial" schools, they could essentially create private schools while using the public school system. Piggybacking on public money, parents can pay for enrichment programs, computers, longer school days, better teachers and smaller classes. School autonomy was supposed to mean that schools would be more responsive to their communities. What it really means is that schools compete for the good pupils - and the extra funds that their parents can bring. Defying government rules, special schools have instituted admission exams. Although these are ostensibly testing the students' talents, Yael Kafri, an education researcher at the Tel Aviv University, says, "What they are really do is "testing the families' ability to pay. Only the poorer, weaker students are left in the regular schools." The special schools siphoned off the best and the brightest, especially in Jerusalem, according to research conducted by Shmuel Shye, from the Center for Social Justice and Democracy at the Van Leer Institute. Furthermore, according to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics from September 2004, a child's educational level is directly and almost irreversibly correlated with the child's parents' income and the neighborhood in which he or she lives. A child who lives in a poor area is unlikely to find a good school on a reasonable level and is, statistically at least, doomed to a lower-level profession as an adult. Says Ezra Noam, head of an action committee working for school equality in Jerusalem, "A school that doesn't have the resources cannot bring the good pupils back, and will inevitably become weaker and weaker. And that is how the situation that we have in Jerusalem was created - completely separate schools for rich children and schools for poor children." The right to choose and the search for excellence (or at least adequacy) have killed off any pretense of educational equality in Jerusalem. Years ago, in an effort to promote integratzia, the municipality divided the school into "registration areas" and each child is automatically registered in the junior high school in his or her registration area. These registration areas, drawn to create a socio-economic and ethnic mix, are a crucial part of the municipality's integratzia plan. In the past few years, the municipality, concerned about the drain on the public schools, has taken steps to determine who can attend each of the special schools. First priority is given to the neighborhood in which the school is located; then to children from moshavim and communities near by (many of whom pay the full cost of the tuition); and, finally, to students from other registration areas who wish to apply to that school (and make the cut, if the school has entrance exams or a personal interview as part of its acceptance procedure). Since all but one of the schools (Givat Gonen, which is in the Katamonim) are located in the better areas, the chances for the students from the poor neighborhoods to get in almost nil - even if the school were to accept them, and even if they could afford it. Which most cannot. Tuition for the special schools is as high as NIS 12,000 a year, often paid in five installments. And that doesn't include all the extra payments that all parents have to pay for books and equipment, school trips, cultural enrichment, enrichment classes for exceptional children ("metzuyanut"), uniforms, lockers, and end-of-year party bashes. Parents from the Action Committee contend that the high costs and the entrance procedures, which usually include a personal interview as well as a written or performed examination, are poorly disguised ways of keeping "the wrong" children - and their equally "wrong" families - out of the desirable schools and maintaining their desirability. "Sure, there are scholarships," Shmulik David, a community organizer who is working with the action committee for Shatil, a support organization for non-profits established by the New Israel Fund. "But many parents don't want to ask for them, not only because they are ashamed, but because they'll be labeled as parents who don't have the money, who can't pull their own weight." Furthermore, he continues, "the fact that a student receives a scholarship one year doesn't mean that he will receive a scholarship the next year. So who can take that risk and commit themselves?" David also points to the high importance placed on personal interviews. "They are a process of exclusion, not of selection," he says, "and they have clear racist overtones." As the city grows poorer, the separation walls grow higher, he warns. "As there are more poor people, the numbers that can come into the special schools grow smaller, and that's even before we come to the selection committees which, as it quite natural, choose their students according to the principle of 'how much like me are you?'" Absurdly, at the same time, parents who do have the means, but don't live in the registration area of a specific school, establish fictitious addresses or rent apartments so that they will be considered within the "neighborhood quota." My daughter was accepted to L'yad-ha [The University Secondary School]," says G.D., "but we were afraid that the authorities would not let her go because there are many children from our neighborhood who want to go to that school. So we lied and said that we live in Beit Hakerem, and there were no problems." She continues, "Why should the municipality have the right to decide where my child can go to school? As a parent, it's not my responsibility to think of the good of all the children - it's my responsibility to think about the good of my own child." Principal Nurit Eldar takes a more balanced view. Eldar is principal of the TALI-Beit Hinuch school which, while not a special school, has become very desirable ever since Eldar took over three years ago. Eldar says that while she believes in social equality and justice, and in equal opportunity for all children, as an educator she also believes that a child should study where in a school where he or she can fulfill their potential and feel "at home." And if "at home" is in one of the special schools, then he should be there. Amit Halevy has doubts about which children can feel "at home" where. Says Halevy, head of the Parents' Association at the L'yad-ha school: "Why would you want to take a child from his home, his environment, his family, and transplant him into a foreign environment. Does anyone really believe that with a bit of tutoring that kid will mingle with the others who come from wealthy homes. I know that my words can be interpreted as politically incorrect, but I'm not interested in hiding the truth. The truth is that L'yad-ha is a very high level school, and kids who don't have the same level will lower the standards here." Instead, Halevy says, "I want massive budgets sent to the poor neighborhoods, to strengthen the schools there, to pay for Internet in the homes of the kids, for massive help - anything, but not dragging the kids to schools where they have no chance of succeeding or, if they do, it will be at a high psychological price." In response to these arguments, the municipality continues to send out unclear, mixed messages regarding its position and policy. Part of the confusion stems from Manhi's unclear position regarding the Lavie Report, presented more than three years ago by a court-mandated committee to suggest alternatives to the registration areas system. Lavie recommended opening up the registration areas, so that any child could register for any school. In order to guarantee that children without adequate financial means would be able to attend, the Lavie Commission recommended that the municipality establish a fund to supply scholarships and equalize payments among the various schools, to provide additional funding to weaker schools, and provide busing to enable children to attend the school of their choice. On the one hand, the mayor and Manhi announced more than two years ago that they would accept the recommendations of the Lavie Report. On the other hand, they have not established any funding, and have even cut funding for school busing, in clear contradiction to the recommendations of the report. Furthermore, the municipality has implemented some of the Lavie report in one neighborhood (Pisgat Ze'ev), but has not included the religious schools in the arrangement. In another set of inconsistent moves, Manhi has attempted to block the establishment or expansion of existing special schools, such as the Bilingual School, but has consistently caved in at the last minute. And finally, most recently, Hanah Gilat, deputy director of Manhi and the director of the Secondary Department, who was in charge of the decision regarding which children were accepted into which special school, resigned, amid severe criticism of her "inflexibility," indicating to some that Manhi was intending to ease its stand regarding registration areas. Making matters even more complicated is the Dovrat Report, which although not implemented in Jerusalem, still hovers over the system. The Dovrat Report devoted particular attention to the special schools. "We understand and respect parents' rights to determine their children's education," says Ruth Ottolenghi, coordinator of the Dovrat Committee. "But we all know that in many cases parents are less interested in a specific program and more interested in bypassing integratzia." Ottolenghi believes that the competition between schools will force all schools to strive for excellence, but much will depend, of course, on the manner in which schools are funded. But they aren't funded, at least not in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the quasi-formal, quasi-legal system continues to operate as it always has. "This is clear testimony of the mayor's weakness," says opposition councilman Nir Barkat, who was one of the parents who appealed to the Supreme Court to cancel the registration areas. "The public has to wake up. If the Lavie Report isn't implemented, the level of schools will continue to decline, and this will continue to encourage the negative migration of secular residents. Adds Michal Shalem, a parent who was also signed on the petition to the courts that led to the establishment of the Lavie Commissions, "The data point to the fact that most of the secular parents leave the city when their children reach junior high school." According to Nati Buchnik, a parent on the Action Committee and a member of the Mizrah Shemesh movement, which is particularly active in the Katamonim and Pat neighborhoods, Manhi's responses have only made the situation worse. "If a good school is open for my children in a distant location, and it costs a lot of money, what does it matter that it's 'open' for everyone? I don't have the money - neither for the transportation nor for the tuition. So for me, the school is not open. It's a lie." Buchnik adds that "only an egalitarian attitude towards education, deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, can offer a real solution to this situation." David says that a group of parents from the Action Committee are considering appealing to the High Court of Justice. One of their main requests, says Ezra, is that kids from poorer schools be given preparation for the entrance examinations into the special schools, because otherwise, they are at too great a disadvantage and won't ever be accepted. Ossi Rotem, head of the Parents' Association at the Arts School, says that at the least, Manhi should "at last acknowledge that the special schools are a real success, that the system should learn from us and not try to destroy us." She says that what disturbs her most is the municipality's attitude towards the parents. "Mayor Lupolianski said that the Lavie Report would be open to a public debate on the municipality Web site. He didn't fulfill his promise and there has been no open debate on the Lavie Report, not on the Web site and not at all. This issue deals with our children, and with the whole future of the educational system and with the city's future. We need a public and open free debate." Such a debate must attend to the underlying questions, too, regarding the role of social solidarity in a modern democracy? What level of social gaps can a city like Jerusalem tolerate? Can excellence in education and equality of opportunity coexist? What are parents' rights? Will the educational system continue to be the glue that keeps many well-educated secular and modern-Orthodox families in Jerusalem? Or will it be yet another force driving them out? In Jerusalem concludes this report by acknowledging that a comprehensive story such as this is incomplete without an indepth interview with the head of Manhi, Benzi Nemet and articulation of Manhi's ideological and organizational positions. But despite our repeated requests, neither Nemet nor anyone from his office agreed to be interviewed.