Old problems, new challenges

As if the lack of funding to Arab schools wasn't enough, Sa'ar brings even more obstacles with him.

barkat peres reach out to arab girls 248 (photo credit: GPO / Mark Neiman)
barkat peres reach out to arab girls 248
(photo credit: GPO / Mark Neiman)
On the opening week of the school year, amid the already staggering conditions of the Arab education system in Israel - grossly unequal funding, nominal Arab representation on curricular committees, substantial lack of classrooms and often basic facilities or outdated textbooks, all contributing to significantly lower performance and matriculation rates than Jewish pupils - it seems that the new school year and the new education minister are bringing new challenges as well. If in the past Arab students have had to face discrimination in funding, access and quality of education, it appears that the coming era is one of cultural exclusion - or even repression. ALREADY IN mid-July, the Ministry of Education announced that it would ban the use of the term "Nakba" (catastrophe) widely used in the Arab narrative to describe the events that led to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Although Arab Palestinians, who comprise 25 percent of schoolchildren in Israel, generally recall a different experience of the war and its consequences in 1948-1949, their lessons at schools will even further ignore their collective history, replaced with the Jewish narrative. This is the case, despite the fact that before the end of her term, former education minister Yuli Tamir appointed a joint team of Arab and Jewish education experts to produce a host of recommendations for a "shared life" program in public schools - one that would foster mutual understanding between Arabs and Jews, coexistence and shared, equal participation in society. Current Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar has frozen the implementation of the recommendations, and instead is pushing for a new "Jewish heritage and culture" program for fourth through ninth grades, which he hopes to bring to all public schools starting in the 2010/11 school year. In the program, Jewish and Arab students alike will learn about the Hebrew calendar, the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish history, the significance of the flag and national anthem and will be encouraged to enlist in the IDF. What is more, last week Sa'ar proposed a plan under which schools with high rates of student army enlistment will be rewarded financially - and parents too! To be sure, Sa'ar is as aware that no Arab school will qualify for such rewards as he knows of the blatant discrepancy between the budgets allocated to Arab versus Jewish schools. In fact, last summer under Tamir, a joint committee of the Ministry of Education and Arab civil society representatives published findings detailing the exact shortage of funds and human resources in the Arab education system. According to the committee's projections, as we enter the present school year, if action is not taken immediately, Arab schools will continue to lack NIS 500 million in funds for curricular and pedagogical programs; NIS 300m. in rent for Arab kindergartens; 9,236 classrooms; 200 school psychologists and 250 guidance counselors (already there are no guidance counselors in 75% of Arab schools). DESPITE THE bleakness of this picture, however, the good news is that although the challenges are mighty, the solutions are at everyone's fingertips - they just need to be implemented. After all, the "shared life" program, and the joint committee's fully detailed plan and budget for improving the Arab education system simply await the green light from Education Minister Sa'ar. And should the ministry continue to neglect Arab schools, the movement for an independent, professional Arab pedagogical council is growing rapidly among Arab educators, as it becomes increasingly clear that without direct influence over its own education policy, budgets, standards and curricula, the Arab minority will continue to be repressed - both in access to equal opportunity to succeed in life and break the cycle of poverty, and in the ability to fully participate in Israeli society as truly equal citizens. The writer is the general director of Dirasat, the Arab Center for Law and Policy, based in Nazareth. He also teaches minority rights at the University of Haifa.