Will schools open on time? Likely not - opinion

It is immoral for teachers to strike, except in very rare situations. The right thing to do in the current constellation is for the teachers to sign a short-term agreement.

 EDUCATION MINISTER Yifat Shasha-Biton visits a classroom last year. Will this school year open on time?  (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
EDUCATION MINISTER Yifat Shasha-Biton visits a classroom last year. Will this school year open on time?
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

At the time of writing, it is not yet clear whether the school year will open on Thursday, September 1. The reason is that the teachers’ union, headed by Yaffa Ben-David, and the high-school teachers organization, headed by Ran Erez, have not yet signed a new salary agreement for the next five years with the Ministry of Finance, even though the old agreement expired in September 2019, and both organizations threaten to go on strike if their various demands are not met.

The main differences of opinion concern the salary rises that will be paid to veteran teachers and those that will be paid to new teachers, who currently earn around a third of the average salary of veteran teachers, and the synchronization of the holidays of the education system and those of the salaried parents of the school children, so that the holidays of the children and the parents will coincide, at least partially.

The Ministry of Finance is also demanding that the promotion of teachers should be based not only on seniority, but also on quality, and wants to have the option to employ excellent teachers on personal contracts. Since the Finance Ministry is willing to increase the annual budget of the Education Ministry by only NIS 4 billion, it is clear that the reforms will have to be prioritized. The problem is that the priorities of the Ministry of Finance and those of the teachers are not the same.

It should be noted that the main problem in the Israeli school system today involves a major shortage of trained teachers in the system. It is said that there are at least 5,700 teachers missing in the system and that the number of teachers leaving the system is progressively growing, especially among younger teachers.

Causes and complications

 YAFFA BEN-DAVID, head of the Teachers’ Union, greets teachers participating in a demonstration in Tel Aviv in May demanding better pay and work conditions. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) YAFFA BEN-DAVID, head of the Teachers’ Union, greets teachers participating in a demonstration in Tel Aviv in May demanding better pay and work conditions. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

The cause for this is primarily financial but also large classes, behavioral problems and even violence in the classrooms. The result is that many of the new teachers who will be joining the school system lack teaching qualifications. Add to this the problems left over from the period when the Corona pandemic resulted in the closing down of the schools, and serious social and mental difficulties among school children which followed, as well as the shortage of social workers and psychologists to help them cope with these difficulties – and you confront a serious crisis.

In addition, there is the reform that Education Minister Dr. Yifat Shasha-Biton is planning to start introducing as of the approaching school year in the teaching of history, civic studies (ezrahut), bible and literature, which will replace the current matriculation exams in these four subjects, with individual research projects to be prepared by the students under the guidance and supervision of their high-school teachers, and you have an additional goat brought into high-school system, which the system will have difficulties to cope with at this juncture.

Besides the objective difficulties, there are two circumstantial reasons for the difficulty in reaching an agreement. The first concerns the positions of the personalities involved in the negotiations: especially those of Finance Avigdor Minister Liberman, Education Minister Shasha-Biton, of Yaffa Ben-David and Ron Erez, as well as of Prime Minister Yair Lapid. The second concerns the general elections that will take place two months after the school year is supposed to open.

Liberman sees the teachers as one of several major groups of government employees, who are demanding major salary increases and/or changes in their work conditions and whose places of employment are in a state of crisis. He also refuses to provide the pay rises being demanded without the teachers’ agreeing to the demands put forward by the Ministry of Finance.

Yaffa Ben-David and Yifat Shasha-Biton

YAFFA BEN-DAVID, who heads the teachers’ union, is fighting a very rigid and non-compromising battle. The 57-year-old, who has headed the teachers’ union since 2016, is something of a battle ax and doesn’t have any of the softness one expects to find in a former teacher. The 77-year-old Erez has been head of the high-school teachers’ organization for 25 years and has recently begun an additional five-year term in the job. In the current power struggle opposite the Ministry of Finance, he seems to be a follower of Ben-David’s moves, rather than an initiator.

Shasha-Biton, who has a Ph.D. in education management, used to be a literature teacher and knows the Israeli education system inside out, has very clear and strong views on how she wants the education system to look (which is not necessarily the way the teachers see it), but seems to have decided for strategic reasons to back the teachers in their negotiations, though she did hold talks with Liberman and Lapid, last week, to try to get the negotiations moving. So far Lapid has not played an active role in the negotiations themselves, primarily because Liberman expressed his objection to such intervention on the prime minister’s part.

However, the elephant in the room is the approaching elections. It is because of the elections that Liberman seems determined not to give way, even though it is questionable whether he will continue to serve as finance minister after the elections – no matter who forms a government, and no matter what sort of government will be formed. Lapid, on the other hand, has a vested interest in bringing the negotiations to a rapid end, since a long teacher’s strike will ruin his attempts to present himself as an effective prime minister, who is in control of the situation.

Shasha-Biton must also be aware of the fact that these are probably her last few months as education minister, and that she might soon join three of the five ministers of education who served before her since Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, who served for less than two years – Shai Piron from Yesh Atid (2013-14), Rafi Peretz from Habayit Hayehudi (2019-2020) and Yoav Galant from the Likud (2020-2021). Only Gideon Sa’ar from the Likud served in the job for a full four-year term (2009-13), as did Naftali Bennett from Habayit Hayehudi/Hayamin Hahadash (2015-2019).

Even if an agreement will be signed before Thursday, there will be no financial backing for its implementation for at least part of the year 2022/23, since the 2023 budget will only be prepared and passed after a new government is formed following the elections and especially if Netanyahu will form the next government there will certainly be a new minister of education – most probably from the Likud – who is likely to reject most of the current minister’s policies and reforms, and the fate of any salary agreement signed with Liberman, could prove to be unstable.

There are those who suspect that Ben-David’s rigid stance in the negotiations is affected by her expectation that the Likud will win the elections, even though she herself is not a member of the Likud.

I believe that it is immoral for teachers to strike, except in very rare situations, and that the right thing to do in the current constellation is for the teachers to sign a short-term agreement that will enable the school year to open on time and let the next government grapple with the problem, with the hope that we shall finally have a stable government, that will survive its full term. But this is little more than wishful thinking.

The writer, born in Haifa in 1943, worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher, and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book is Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job.