Give haredi children tools for life

Ultra-Orthodox parents have rights - but so does the state.

Haredim 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Haredim 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A petition demanding that the Education Ministry introduce and enforce a core curriculum in haredi high schools, in accordance with a decision the High Court of Justice handed down three years ago, has renewed public debate. Are the tax-funded educational streams controlled by Agudat Yisrael, Degel Hatorah and Shas legal? As the Post reported last month, these schools are eligible for up to 100% state funding on condition that they teach 100% of the core curriculum. If they teach the minimum of 75%, they will receive 75% of the funding. Most of the "recognized but not official" schools belong to the Hinuch Atzmai (Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah) and Maayan Hinuch Torani (Shas) systems. There is no precedent elsewhere in the West for educational streams to receive funding if they refuse to accept state educational directives and thereby deny their students the skills needed to find their places in society. All democracies give parents the right to choose a religious education for their children. But the law does not give parents absolute rights. The state too has a role in requiring parents to provide their children with mandatory education, and to intervene to save children - its future citizens - from the ignorance that will prevent them from taking their rightful place in the country's economic and political life. THE US Supreme Court stressed this reasoning in a benchmark ruling in which it exempted the children of the Amish - the Mennonite farming sect which seeks simplicity in all things - from sending their children to high school beyond the age of 14. The court recognized the right of the state to demand mandatory education which would provide children with the skills needed to prevent them from becoming a burden on society. But it underscored that, in the case of the Amish, there was no such fear because the sect's religious education guaranteed that its graduates would find work. It may be assumed that without such proof that the Amish education would fulfill this condition, the Supreme Court would not have endorsed the exemption from mandatory education until the age of 16 that the sect demanded. Moreover, the right of Amish parents over their children expires when they reach maturity; they become entitled to quit the sect, take leave of their parents and quit the religious community. The court endorsed the Amish exemption only after it was satisfied that the right to leave the sect would not be infringed upon by the nature of the religious education the sect provided. THIS IS ALSO one of the reasons why Israel's own High Court of Justice decided that all schools must have a common core curriculum that gives children a real option to choose their own path when they grow up. These principles apply even when the state does not fund private parochial schools. In every instance where the state does provide such funding, the minimum demand is that the schools teach the shared curriculum. From this it follows that all those who run schools - to say nothing of those that receive funding from the state - must adhere to Israel's core curriculum. And that's all that would need to be said - if we actually lived according to constitutional principles. Those who don't follow the core curriculum would not be entitled to an exemption from mandatory studies and certainly wouldn't get full funding from the state. But that's not the world we live in. Our world is one of complex political constraints, making it next to impossible to maintain a government coalition without the participation of at least one of the haredi parties that run these ultra-Orthodox schools. SO WHAT can be done? I opt for a combination of compromise and principle. There is no reason why ultra-Orthodox schools should not give their children the professional and technical skills they need to claim a place in the work market. Those skills include mathematics, computers and English; and teaching these subjects in no way runs counter to the values of haredi Judaism. Thus there is no reason why haredi schools should not introduce a curriculum recognized by the Ministry of Education in these subjects. For girls, the core can be further expanded without conflicting with haredi values so that they study the entire Ministry of Education curriculum. That is the situation in England, where ultra-Orthodox schools for girls teach most of the state curriculum and also grant certificates that enable their girls to continue their education. Why is it all right there and forbidden here? ANOTHER important matter: The ministry has declared its intention before the High Court to enable all those denied the possibility of taking matriculation exams to complete their studies and prepare for those examinations (an old idea conceived by this writer). Currently, the state denies some students the right to a higher education and a livelihood by providing support for and granting authority to schools which do not teach the core curriculum. Consequently, the state must compensate the graduates of those schools by covering the cost of their preparation for the matriculation exams. Mandating the core curriculum for boys in ultra-Orthodox schools, broadening the curriculum for girls, and providing graduates who want to continue their studies with state-funded courses to prepare for matriculation exams addresses the severe problem created by the inadequate education in the haredi sector. From that, we must not back down. The writer, former president of the Interdisciplinary Center-Herzliya, has been minister of education and a member of the Knesset.