The cost of 'free' education

For first time, Knesset allows schools to demand payment from parents.

school kids 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
school kids 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Each summer, as the school year closes, the Knesset Education Committee deliberates the payments that schools demand from parents for the coming term. For the past few years, the committee has ritually been urged to refuse to ratify the payments. This year has been no exception. The next part of the ritual, as played out over the years, has been for the schools to continue collecting considerable sums, even though the system doesn't officially sanction them. By some estimates parents shell out some NIS 2 billion annually. This money often disappears inside the maze of individual schools' bookkeeping. As a rule of thumb, the higher a neighborhood's socio-economic status and the higher the child's grade, the more is required from parents, regardless of the fact that this isn't legally compulsory. By law, families who cannot afford school payments may ask for assistance (a NIS 46 million fund finances payments for about 130,000 kids). But this is a demeaning process, and one which often ends in rejection of the request. In many schools, a professed inability to pay produces demands for deeds to show whether the family owns its place of residence, documentation about family-owned vehicles and bank statements and/or certification from municipal welfare authorities showing whether it is on relief. Rather than end such humiliation and unlawful intrusiveness, Education Minister Yuli Tamir is now proposing to make a bad situation worse by linking school payments to families' economic status, whatever that may mean. This might give legal license to each school principal to hound parents, check out their finances and turn schools into yet another taxation organ. All this is going on, remember, within a system that prides itself on providing free egalitarian education to all. Reality belies the ideal. Much of the money raised by "parental payments" goes to what's euphemistically dubbed the "culture basket," which includes school trips, theatrical performances and school parties. Two years ago, when teachers declared a partial strike and refused to partake in "culture basket" excursions, the kids were not much the worse but a hue and cry went up from hostel owners and showbiz enterprises. Without income from schools they couldn't survive. The bottom line is that part of the parents' payments are in effect artificially sustaining failing commercial ventures, not all of which are remotely deserving of school endorsement. Children whose parents cannot pay are humiliatingly left behind when classmates go on trips. The same goes for school parties, which grow more prohibitively expensive every year. But parents also often even have to pay for ordinary school pageants. In many schools, furthermore, parents are charged for the costs of annual ceremonies such as that memorializing Yitzhak Rabin. In these cases, while no one would argue with the educational value, the question is why are they not funded through regular school budgets? Too many schools don't perform even more rudimentary tasks. Very few remedial classes are available in our schools, for instance, and there is no norm or teachers providing minimal extra assistance to students who request it. Indeed most Israeli families are forced send their children to private tutors if they want to ensure a full education. The schools themselves encourage this practice. Thus a whole system of "gray education" operates to fulfill functions that the schools should but don't. Overall, then, the notion that our system provides "free" education has become a sham. Hard-working parents are bullied or humiliated into paying unofficial taxes, and also then have to finance private tutoring for their children. It can be argued that we might as well rip off the mask of pretense and openly allow private education, like most other countries. Competition with private schools might even force public schools to improve their act. Certainly, the system can't have it both ways. In a truly tuition-free education, what are deemed indispensable expenses must be borne by the authorities. Funds can be found by trimming waste and, if necessary, by reallocating budgets to truly reflect the values of the people of the book - but not by extorting additional taxes from parents everyone denies levying.