Denied state funding, private school slams ‘double standard’

7 Mar

By Ilan Bloch

This post deals with the issue of private schools in Israel. For more information about this topic, please visit http://ow.ly/49fgR which deals with the Havruta School near Netanya.

Image courtesy of scienceblogs.com

It is clear that a democratic state should not forbid the establishment of private schools. A modern liberal state must permit the development of a free market in goods and services, including education, and offer various options from which its citizens are allowed to choose, based on their ideology as well as their means. With this said, the government must be able to mandate that a core curriculum be adopted as part of the teaching and learning programs of all schools operating under its jurisdiction, and every private school must be required to teach the core curriculum and undergo a process of inspection on a regular basis in order to retain its license to continue to operate legally. A system which allows for a linkage to be made between the amount of the core curriculum taught, and the level of government funding provided is unacceptable; either mathematics, science, language and civics need to be taught to all students or they do not. It should not be possible to compromise on the core curriculum through agreeing to a limitation of funding.

There is a risk that private schools that do not teach the core curriculum will produce students who are incapable of earning a living in later life and who are destined to become permanently dependent on welfare in their adult lives. At the same time the government must check that the non-core subjects are consistent with the values of a democratic society, namely that a democratic state is based on the rule of law and are pluralistic in nature. These requirements are necessary where the private school is completely self-funded but even more so when the private school receives state funding since transparency and accountability are fundamental principles of a democratic society.

Parents should be free to select a sectarian-interest school based on their ideological identity. For instance, a Russian-speaking immigrant may wish to invest in an education which, alongside teaching the core curriculum, will also provide Russian language and literature and advanced science classes, as well as an enhanced cultural program. A Reform Jew might want his child to learn Jewish studies in a different context to what is offered both at Mamlachti (state) and Mamlachti Dati (state religious) schools, and be willing to pay a premium for this. There exists, without question, the right of parents to choose an education for their children which best expresses family values and attitudes – whether these be religious, ethnic or academic.

It is important to tackle the question of whether the government should fund private schools. On the one hand, parents have chosen to forgo a (theoretically) free education, and are therefore not owed anything by the government or other taxpayers for their choice. However, the government is clearly saving some money by not having to educate children who study in private schools. Obviously, simple arithmetic of dividing the total education budget by the number of school-aged children to calculate a per student budget is illogical; a distinction between fixed and variable costs exists, and this must be taken into account, along with the understanding that supervision of a private school sector costs money in and of itself. Some level of funding is certainly appropriate. The government should mandate that a particular portion of this funding should be allocated towards scholarships for students with significant academic aptitude, but who come from a low economic status, in order to try and limit socio-economic gaps in Israeli society.

At the same time, efforts should be made to consolidate the existing government-sponsored school networks as much as possible in order to concentrate government funding in a fewer number of schools, so that it can be utilized more fully. (Economist Dan Ben-David argues that per capita educational funding in Israel is not significantly lower than that of other OECD states, but rather that its impact is diminished because it is divided between so many different sub-sectors.)

None of the above absolves the government from adequately investing in the public school system. A basic level of education, which must include thirty-five academic hours of study per week up to bagrut (matriculation), a cap of twenty-five students per class, and a requirement to hire teachers who have studied at tertiary level in education-related fields for at least four years, and who continue to undergo professional development and training, must be offered. Of course, a reasonable minimum salary would need to be offered to beginning teachers in order to attract teachers of sufficiently high caliber to the teaching profession. Aggressive affirmative action would need to be instituted in relation to schools in the periphery, and especially in the Arab sector, in order create a level playing field to compensate for the decades of neglect from which Arab schools and many schools in lower socio-economic locales have suffered. This would involve additional funding compared to the funding received by schools on a higher level.

However, all of this is separate from the wider issue of privatization. Conflating government neglect, poor policy planning and a lack of funding with the left-wing bogeyman of privatization is mistaken in that it frees previous Israeli governments on both ends of the political spectrum from culpability for their sins of omission and commission, and apportions blame to a supposedly evil amorphous economic tool – the free market or the profit motive. Privatization is not at fault here; a heavy security burden and a significant investment in Judea and Samaria/the occupied territories have essentially redirected health, education and welfare funding from where they are most needed.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.

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