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Bennett’s government advances ultra-Orthodox public school system

The new Israeli government focuses efforts on pushing forward and expanding an ultra-Orthodox public school system.
A religious Jewish yeshiva (seminary) student stands outside the local army draft office May 11, 2006 at Tel Hashomer near Tel Aviv in central Israel.

The issue of the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society, economically and socially, is one of the most important Israel faces domestically. One of the biggest obstacles to doing so is the independent and separate school systems of most of the ultra-Orthodox streams, from Shas to the Lithuanians to the Hasidim, where every Hasidic sect has its own educational institutions. The solution devised in 2014 by then-Education Minister Shai Piron of establishing an ultra-Orthodox public school system has gotten a big push in the new government — also in light of growing demand for it among the ultra-Orthodox.

For decades, the state has fought to bring curricula into the ultra-Orthodox schools that could help young ultra-Orthodox integrate into the job market, with “core subjects” such as English, mathematics and especially science, but without success.

Thus, according to the state comptroller’s report from last year, only 3% of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students qualify for matriculation. Most teachers haven’t been certified to teach subjects that aren’t religious — 95% of math teachers haven’t received any training in math — and 40% of textbooks aren’t up-to-date. Add to that, 84% of ultra-Orthodox middle and high school students haven’t learned subjects like math, English and science at all. State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman determined “there are deep knowledge gaps among ultra-Orthodox students that will make it difficult for them and impact the productivity of the market as a whole.”

In 2014, Piron — of the Yesh Atid Party, which was created by Yair Lapid (currently foreign minister and alternate prime minister) — decided to circumvent the ultra-Orthodox independent school systems and establish a public ultra-Orthodox system. It would teach advanced religious studies in the ultra-Orthodox style but also include “regular” studies in core subjects that would prepare young people to integrate into the market.

Schools and preschools in the new system were established, and over the years the demand has grown for them among ultra-Orthodox families who wanted their kids to have this kind of education. At the same time, enforcement has increased of the independent ultra-Orthodox schools that receive government funding and are required to provide minimal education in the core subjects.

But the ultra-Orthodox parties that returned to power in 2015 have erected obstacles for the public ultra-Orthodox system, including limits on its expansion and veto rights for local governments. Thus, paradoxically, at almost all of the ultra-Orthodox local authorities where demand for such schools should have been highest, there are no or very few public ultra-Orthodox schools.

According to the Knesset Research and Information Center, despite the restrictions, both demand and the number of ultra-Orthodox students at public ultra-Orthodox schools have grown. In 2014, there were only 1,400 students in this system. In the last school year, the number reached nearly 13,000. But this is only 3% of all ultra-Orthodox students in Israel, who are nearly a fifth of students in Israel. All the rest hardly learn core subjects, and the result is that only 50% of the ultra-Orthodox participate in the labor market — most of them not in productive jobs.

The new Bennett government — which now includes both Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beitenu, two parties with strong secular agendas — set in its founding agenda the principle of advancing the ultra-Orthodox community and its integration into the market. Last week, Knesset member Alex Kushnir of Yesh Atid, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, submitted a proposed law for the establishment of a new public education stream for the ultra-Orthodox public that will apparently receive the support of the entire coalition. The proposed law was co-sponsored by Knesset member Moshe Tur-Paz of Yesh Atid and states that reestablishing a public ultra-Orthodox education system will provide an educational solution for the ultra-Orthodox public that wishes to educate its children to be ultra-Orthodox but also sees great importance in giving them a proper and equal education. The proposed law intends to turn the existing small educational system into a much stronger and well-budgeted one, and for the government to invest in it while circumventing ultra-Orthodox local authorities that prevent its entry into the communities.

Israel has 61 public ultra-Orthodox schools today, but they aren’t unified as a central stream like the modern religious public school system or the secular public school system. Thus, they face financial difficulties every year. The proposers of the new law say the coalition is expected to support it based on a clause in the founding principles of the coalition agreement that defines core education as a national goal in order to integrate the whole population in the labor market, so as to advance the Israeli economy and society.

Pnina Pfeuffer, director of The New Haredim, has in recent years led the struggle of ultra-Orthodox parents who wished to develop this stream. She expressed great satisfaction at the direction the Knesset was taking and praised the "proposed law that determines that an ultra-Orthodox child, like any child in Israel, deserves public education that meets his values and lifestyle.” She noted that demand for these schools is high, but many ultra-Orthodox parents who want schools with quality core education are forced to leave their children in the independent school systems because there are no such schools where they live.

What do the ultra-Orthodox politicians say? In an Aug. 16 debate in the Knesset, Education Committee member Uri Maklev of ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah attacked the proposed law but said if it doesn’t damage the independent ultra-Orthodox system they won’t get in its way. “We won’t cooperate with the ultra-Orthodox public system. All they want to do is destroy independent education, and we can’t cooperate with such a thing. If they declare that their intentions are different, we’ll cooperate,” said Maklev.

On the other hand, coalition chair Idit Silman said she’ll work toward a quick advancement of the proposed law.

The success of this move depends on laying strong foundations for such an educational system that could not be removed if there’s a change in government.

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