School's (still) out

Struggles over school registrations is keeping some children out of school.

For Nadav and Moriah, two Jerusalem junior high school students, summer vacation hasn't ended, but they are not enjoying the extra time off. Although the school year opened nearly three weeks ago, Nadav and Moriah are still sitting at home, because they have not been registered for school. Nadav and Moriah and at least eight other Jerusalem schoolchildren from neighborhoods throughout the city are not in school due to their parents' objections to the registration policy of Manhi (the Jerusalem Educational Administration). The situation recurs every year. Parents and students register for one of the junior high schools in town. Some of these schools require admission examinations and others require parents to pay high additional fees. But if the children are accepted and the parents are willing to pay, they assume they will be allowed to attend the junior high school of their choice. But every year, Manhi refuses to allow some children to attend the school of their choice and assigns them to a different one. Some of the parents and students accept the verdict; others strike and fight. And by mid-September, every year, Manhi finds out that between 10 and 15 students are still at home. Experience has shown that those families who hold out long enough usually get their request. But this year, says Etti Binyamin, chair of the Jerusalem-district Parents' Association, "this shameful situation should have been avoided since the municipality announced it accepted the recommendations of the Lavie Report, which gives the students the right to choose the school they wish to go to". The Lavie Report recommends allowing children to register for junior high school in any school that they choose. Until now, children who graduate from elementary schools were directly registered for the junior high school in their vicinity. Some children did register for city-wide "special schools," which include schools such as the bilingual, the University high school, the religious and secular arts schools, and others. But the final decision regarding which school a child would attend rested with Manhi. "This was an unbearable situation that jeopardized the chances of the children to obtain the best education they have the right to obtain," complains Nir Barkat, head of the city council opposition. Barkat is one of the people who helped to bring the change about. Four years ago, when his own child was not allowed to register for the school of her and her family's choice, Barkat, together with 20 other parents, appealed to the High Court of Justice to intervene and "open registration areas." The court decided to create a commission to examine the issue and propose solutions. The Lavie Committee, named after Professor Victor Lavie from the Hebrew University's Department of Education, met for more than two years before issuing its recommendations to open the districts city-wide. Not everyone was pleased with these recommendations. Parents from poorer neighborhoods organized to form the Association for Fair Education, funded by the New Israel Fund. After extensive lobbying, the Association was able to convince Manhi to allocate budgets to schools in poorer neighborhoods, in order to raise their standards and ensure that wealthier children would not be allowed to flee to expensive schools, abandoning poorer families to poorer schools. Although the municipality officially accepted the report, Binyamin contends that "children still cannot choose their school and Manhi continues to decide for them...I have made it clear [to municipal officials] that we, the parents, will not sit silent. We expect them to solve the problem immediately...It is not acceptable that children are left at home merely because officials are unwilling to relinquish their power." Binyamin views Moriah's case as a matter of principle. According to her mother, Moriah, who is 15, was harassed by other girls in her school. Manhi failed to solve this problem and when it became too hard for her, the family decided to move her to another school. They selected one of the most popular and prestigious schools in Jerusalem, and Moriah was accepted there. Yet to the parents' surprise, Manhi refused to allow her to attend, stipulating, Moriah's mother says, that Moriah "could go to any school in town, except the one we wanted." Comments Binyamin, "The individuals at Manhi responsible for junior- and high-school education act as though they cannot get used to the idea that we are not living in a Stalinist regime." Manhi's primary role, she says, should be "to offer the children of Jerusalem good schools and best conditions, not to force them to register for schools according to its own interests." Moriah's mother has met directly with Benzi Nemet, head of Manhi, who, she says, would only assure her that he "would think it over until the end of the week." "I am not going to allow Manhi to play with my daughter's future," the mother says. "I want my daughter to start school next week." Nadav's mother says that she has succeeding in convincing Manhi to allow Nadav to study in a different school than the one to which they assigned him, but has not been able to persuade them to permit him to attend the school of his choice. Furthermore, according to Binyamin and Nadav's family, in contrast to Nadav's first choice of school, which accepted him, the new school has informed him that he has been admitted "only because Manhi forced them to accept him and that the school would access his suitability throughout the year." The municipal spokesman confirmed that at least 10 students are still not in school, adding tersely that "Manhi is doing its best to assure a place in school for every student in the city." In a socially and economically diverse city such as Jerusalem, issues of school registration involve dilemmas about social justice, public jurisdiction, parental rights, and a child's right to fulfill his or her potential. While the adults battle over these principles, the children still aren't in school.