Sa'ar Stymied

Hopefully, the reaction to shortening the summer will not discourage the Education Minister from pursuing other reforms.

gideon saar_311  (photo credit: Ori Porat)
gideon saar_311
(photo credit: Ori Porat)
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar could have opted for the easy way out – in fact, for a whole series of easy ways that would have cost nothing and risked nothing. No gain also means no pain.
The simplest path for Sa’ar to have followed was the beaten track of his habitually non-innovative predecessors.
In our stilted education system – perhaps even more than in all other established bureaucracies – any attempt to institute change is tantamount to tilting against windmills. Hence Sa’ar knew he was taking a chance when he chose to take on the sacred cow of the long summer vacation.
On the record, nobody denies that the nine-week summer break can be shortened. Moreover, most insiders recognize, this ought to be considered alongside the excessive vacation time before and after the string of High Holy Days and Israel’s relatively short school days. When all these factors are put together, it emerges that our kids spend less time in the classroom than is commonplace elsewhere in the developed world.
But the modest initiative Sa’ar recently dared to propose didn’t even involve reducing the overall time-off for pupils and teachers. He was just out to rationalize the school-year calendar. By trimming five days off the tail end of the summer vacation and attaching them to loose snippets between the High Holy Days and other breaks, he’d create unified vacation blocks and end the farce of youngsters going back to school for a day or two only to be off again for two weeks.
YET THAT modest attempt was enough to land Sa’ar in very hot water. More than anything, because he had been so ambitious as to seek to introduce the change this summer, he threatened to spoil excursion and recreation plans for parents and teachers, and to mess with travel agents and hotel bookings.
So much for the rational considerations that shape school schedules.
A cacophonous furor was generated by an issue that by all rights deserved negligible attention at most. But things only got worse for Sa’ar when, a mere few days later, he called a press conference to announce that he was backtracking. Of course, he could have done this in the more usual, less forthright manner, without summoning reporters and exposing his perceived humiliation to the cameras.
Sa’ar doubtless foresaw the scornful heckling and jeering charges that he was flip-flopping. He wasn’t.
Rather, there was just no way he could implement his changes this coming September as planned. It wasn’t the inconvenienced parents, the travel agents or the hoteliers who had stymied him. As is more often than not the case with any educational reform in this country, it was a teachers’ union that thrust the monkey-wrench in the wheels of progress.
In this case it was the Histadrut Teachers Federation, which retracted its earlier consent to Sa’ar’s minor summer tinkering.
Belatedly, union bookkeepers had alerted members to the possibility that they might lose days off this year that they would be unable to retrieve next year and which, in any case, would snarl reams of red-tape. In the event that losses weren’t recouped, things could have deteriorated into litigation and confrontation. Hence Federation secretary-general Yossi Wasserman backpedaled, which left Sa’ar no choice but to rescind his own proposal. He was left without backup, a would-be reformer abandoned.
Escape was eminently possible for Sa’ar, who could simply have issued a terse late-night communiqué on Shavuot eve. to his credit, he chose to face the consequences squarely before the media. And he was pilloried, while ironically Wasserman – who first agreed to the new arrangements and then reneged on his position – faced no one, accounted to nobody and got no flak.
THE ENTIRE episode, on the surface, appears superfluous and rather odd. But the media owe parents and students a deeper look into what actually happened, why it happened, and who is to blame.
We can only hope that Sa’ar, one of Israel’s better education ministers in decades, isn’t discouraged from pursuing other reforms he has introduced and whose significance far outweighs the incidental silly season summer-vacation kerfuffle.