Some 2 million Israeli children returned to 4,500 schools and almost 63,000 classrooms on Monday, the largest number of pupils the country has educated in its 64-year history.With no threats of strikes by teachers, it was an unusually smooth start to the school year, except for the firing of several rockets at the South from Gaza, which caused no casualties.President Shimon Peres, who was visiting a school in the area, praised the pupils and their families for their courage. “Facing the threat of rockets you have shown steadfastness in learning, achievements and creativity,” Peres said.Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a political point, deciding to visit a school in the Gush Etzion community of Efrat.“Efrat and Gush Etzion are an integral, fundamental and evident part of greater Jerusalem,” Netanyahu declared.Even if we put the security situation and political problems aside, however, there are a plethora of social issues hanging over our classrooms that need to be addressed.Many pupils still find it difficult to complete their matriculation examinations, called Bagrut, for example. While there are outstanding exceptions, such as in Shoham, where 86.2 percent of pupils pass, some communities in Israel reflect a glaring underperformance in grades.In Kiryat Sefer, only 10% of pupils matriculate, and several other predominantly haredi towns, such as Bnei Brak and Betar Illit, have similar dismal results, according to the most recent data. In Jerusalem, our capital, only 41% are said to be likely to pass their Bagrut exams.Graduation rates go hand-in-hand with demographics, economics and social status. Wealthier, more secular Jewish towns, such as Modi’in, do well. National religious communities perform above average while haredi and Arab locales lag significantly behind.The number of pupils currently studying in Arab or haredi schools is approaching 40%. Poverty-stricken development towns, where new immigrants have traditionally been concentrated, have also fared well below average.Problems of race and origin also need to be confronted in the new school year. A report released by the Education Ministry in April noted that “the gaps in the Meitzav standardized tests between Ethiopian pupils and other pupils in Hebrew-speaking schools are huge.”Although the ministry has closed segregated schools in Petah Tikva, there are still a number of schools in the country in which Ethiopian children are disproportionately concentrated.In Eilat, the ministry and the municipality finally reached an agreement to allow children of African migrants to study in schools alongside their Israeli peers rather than be sent to a separate school. But this issue – of educating the children of foreign workers and migrants – still afflicts a number of schools.There are also significant disparities in resources devoted to classrooms in a range of communities across the country.The government and local authorities should work to equalize the treatment of pupils in all schools so that geographic and ethnic discrimination do not further widen the gaps in educational standards.Investment in building more facilities and classrooms in communities where there are chronic shortages, such as in Arab schools in east Jerusalem, should be seen as a positive step. Such measures convey the message that Jerusalem is a united and indivisible city rather than one in which there is an Arab sector that feels neglected, thus growing closer to the Palestinian Authority.ISRAEL FACES immense hurdles in its educational system.The gaps in the multiple religious tracks and social groups are not easy to bridge. The government’s decision to provide free education to pre-schoolers was certainly a step in the right direction, but a lot more needs to be done.Investing more money in our schools and paying our teachers higher salaries are clearly desirable goals, but money alone won’t solve some of the cultural problems, such as widespread disinterest in matriculation, unruly behavior in classrooms and youth violence in and out of school.There should be a joint commitment by the government, local authorities, community leaders and parents to work together to upgrade the culture of schooling to levels that we and the world can be proud of. At stake is the future of our children – and the country.