Stop the strike

Why add the insult of an endless strike to the injury of the neglected reform agenda?

ran erez 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ran erez 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'All these people who support the struggle are in favor of education," said Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO) leader Ron Erez at a massive rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. Indeed, many more than the 100,000 who were there consider themselves strongly "pro-education." We could even say that there is almost no one in this country who does not have a beef with our education system and does not believe that it can and should be improved. Yet it is a leap from these beliefs to say that most Israelis fully identify with either the striking teachers or the foot-dragging government on this issue. If there is any salient point emerging from this strike, it is how little either the SSTO or the government is concerned about resolving it. While the SSTO shares responsibility for launching this strike, rather than resolving differences before the school year started, so does the government. That this strike has continued now for almost two months is testimony to how little Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cares that hundreds of thousands of high school students are being given the ultimate lesson: that their education is not important. Regardless of the merits of the strike, why has Olmert not intervened to end it long ago? Why does he continue to refuse to engage on this issue? Olmert certainly has a case against the striking teachers. Why does he not make it? Why does he not fight for the abandoned recommendations of the Dovrat Commission, the most serious of the many attempts to introduce comprehensive education reform that would benefit teachers and students alike? Our educational system is in desperate need of reforms that will give principals more authority; will give parents more choice between schools; will reward better schools, principals, and teachers; will junk failed programs and bolster successful ones; will reduce the classroom sizes and, through all these measures, ensure that good teachers are better paid and that the teaching profession is awarded greater prestige. Such reforms, tragically, have no address. The teachers unions have been fighting most of them tooth and nail, and the government has long ago given up making the case for them to the teachers or the public. Seeking "industrial quiet" at the expense of reform, the government achieved neither. The worst of it is that the rare energy and attention generated by the strike for addressing our educational crisis seems destined to be wasted. Since Olmert has not made the case for systematic reform, the likely outcome of the strike will be government concessions to the SSTO's financial demands with almost nothing to show for it. Yet, as failed an outcome as this will be, why delay it further? Why add the insult of an endless strike to the injury of the neglected reform agenda? Speaking in Holon before the rally, Education Minister Yuli Tamir said, "If the process fails, it will be my failure and I will pay the price." Tamir, presumably, is fighting for real educational reforms, however pared down from the original Dovrat vision. Whatever she is doing, however, is clearly not enough - neither enough reform, nor enough backing from Olmert to succeed. When reforms meet resistance, it is not enough for the minister in charge to push; he or she must be unflinchingly backed by the prime minister. Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon were bitter ideological and political rivals, yet the former seemed to enjoy the latter's full backing and was able to push through significant economic reforms. Another difference, of course, is that the Olmert government is much weaker and more unpopular than its predecessor. It is this weakness that likely invited the strike in the first place and ensures its unsatisfactory outcome. We see, in short, that no diplomatic process can overcome fundamental political weakness, and this weakness will manifest itself not just in the security and diplomatic arena, but domestically as well. As a nation, we tend to make Faustian bargains: If the government is making a popular move in the "big picture" of peace and security, all else will be overlooked. Such bargains have proven to be poor ones. Not only have our highest existential interests failed to advance, but "minor" matters - such as political hygiene, education, the environment - have been allowed to fall by the wayside as well.