Israel never managed to develop a uniform, egalitarian public education system. In fact, the most outstanding characteristic of education in Israel today is segregation or separation – on the basis of ethnicity, degree of religiosity, and class. This separation is not the product of a pluralistic, multi-cultural world view, but rather the result of long-standing political and economic arrangements, some of which were created by mutual agreement and others of which were imposed. Since the phenomenon of separation is anchored in economic and political power relations, it is accompanied by a high degree of inequality.
Systematic separation in the Israeli education system is to be found on a number of dimensions:
On the administrative dimension, the education system divides into a number of streams that are all in theory subordinate to the Ministry of Education but in practice enjoy a high degree of independence. The Minister of Education primarily manages the state secular stream. The state religious stream and the ultra-Orthodox streams constitute kingdoms within a kingdom; Arab schools, most of which belong to the state secular stream, are actually managed by a separate department.
On the pedagogical dimension, separation is reflected in the existence of a large number of tracks and other frameworks, in which students follow different curricula leading to different achievement goals. The separations are between academic and vocational tracks, between ability groupings, and, beginning in the 1990s, between ordinary classes and schools and special classes and schools whose curricula are enriched in a variety of ways. These separations are in addition to the variance found in school curricula on the basis of ideological streams (religions vs. secular, Jewish vs. Arab).
Another dimension of separation obtaining in Israeli schools is on the basis of ethnicity and class. With the establishment of the state in 1948, a separation occurred between veteran settlers, most of them of European origin (Ashkenazim) and new immigrants from Arab countries (Mizrahim), most of whom attended separate schools in new settlements and neighborhoods or separate classes in schools serving the more veteran population. At the end of the 1970s, with “market forces” becoming the most dynamic forces in the education system, the separation was determined more and more by class position. This occurred as families that improved their class position during the years of economic growth began to take advantage of their newly achieved economic power to obtain a better education for their children by separating them from the children of blue-collar workers, Mizrahi Jews, and Israeli Arabs.
The separation was facilitated by the educational reform of 1968, which created junior high schools, and it speeded up after 1985, when the role of the Ministry of Education in the development of the Israeli education system declined and was replaced by the business sector. The educational reform was coupled with an integration plan that was to place Mizrahi students in the newly created junior high schools. The integration plan did not succeed in erasing the separation line between ethnic groups: most of the Misrahi students went from junior high school to vocational high schools or tracks, and affluent families from both the secular and religious streams fought quite successfully, using both legal and political means, against the integration plan. For its part, the Ministry of Education did not invest much effort in implementing integration.
Slashes in successive Ministry of Education budgets opened the way to the entrance of private money into the system. This began in the form of “grey education” – parents’ financing of teaching hours cut back by the Ministry of Education. In the 1990s, new forms of private financing and of private initiatives developed and were institutionalized, with the granting of official permission to collect payments from parents, with the creation of restricted school choice and the adoption of the corporate model of management for schools.
These processes, in turn, established the hegemony of “market forces” and paved the way to the creation of “special public schools” – state schools that receive most of their financing from the Ministry of Education but also charge tuition, a mechanism that filters out students from low-income families.
Separation and inequality are reflected not only on the management and pedagogical levels, but also on the budgetary level. Despite the fact that most of the budget of the school system comes from public sources and as such is supposed to be divided equally among schools and students, in practice, there is considerable variance in the money – not only from private sources but also from central and local government sources – at the disposal of different kinds of schools and students. Inequality in resources, in turn, is one of the factors that leads to inequality among schools and students –inequality with regard to the number of teaching hours that they receive, the richness of their curricula, the quality of their teaching staffs and the state of their physical plants.
Financial inequality is the result of two main factors: the first is the historical advantage enjoyed by the schools of the veteran settlers and settlements over the localities populated by the new groups that came under the roof of the Israeli education system after 1948: Mizrahi Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The second factor is the penetration of private money into the system. The combination of inequality in public financing and inequality resulting from private financing led to an education system whose financial resources were divided very unevenly: on the one hand, a small number of schools with many resources, and on the other, the majority of schools suffering from a dearth of resources.
The most important practical significance of the phenomena of budgetary inequality, separation into streams, tracks, and ability groupings, and the separation into regular schools and special schools, is that schoolchildren in each one of these follow different curricula that lead to differential educational achievements. A comparison of achievements in the bagrut (matriculation) examinations (at the end of high school) and in internal and international evaluation examinations points to a clear hierarchy of achievements, at the top of which are to be found Jewish students from affluent families, who receive matriculation certificates that guarantee them acceptance into the best universities, and whose achievements are in keeping with those of students in other developed countries. Among Jewish students from less affluent families, achievements are lower. At the bottom of the pyramid one finds Arab students whose average achievements are much lower than the average of Jewish students and comparable to those at the bottom of the international table, alongside countries like Katar, Kuwait and Morocco.
Faced with this development, the state not only fails to formulate new goals for the education system but also makes no attempts to regain its lost authority. What it does is encourage the trend of de-centralization and continue to shed responsibility. In the face of the activism of “market forces,” the state – the body that we would expect to correct the imbalances created by those forces – simply provides legitimization after the fact to most of the processes of separation initiated by parents who can pay. The state did not do to great lengths to enforce integration in junior high schools; it gave its blessings (after the fact) to the payments contributed by parents; it instituted restricted school choice; it encouraged private initiatives; it encouraged the de-centralization of its own mission and authority in the area of financing to schools, despite the fact that the vast majority of schools are not capable of raising funds from sources other than the Ministry of Education.
At the same time, we are witness to the declining status of an important state resource: teachers. Behind this decline are a number of factors: the loss of prestige of the teaching profession; the desire on the part of the state and of “educational entrepreneurs” from the business sector to substitute the present contingent of teachers with another, imaginary one; the adoption of corporate management hiring models; the total disregard of teachers when considering educational reforms; the organizational separations of the education system, which divides the teachers into different sectors; and finally, the policy of inflexible budget restraint that has eroded the salaries of teachers as well as the power of their professional associations, resulting in ongoing confrontation between the state and its teachers.
Today, the most dynamic forces in the education system are to be found outside of the Ministry of Education. The two most dynamic forces are, firstly, the stratum of affluent urban families, who know how to take advantage of the retrenchment of the state to create elitist schools for their own children that keep them separate from other children in the system: special schools, torah schools, science schools, art schools and the like. This force acts not only on the level of the school but also on the national level, through public bodies like the Dovrat Commission and the non-profit organization “Hakol Hinuch,” led by business people who promote reforms that are primarily organizational and that end up reinforcing the positions of the affluent communities and schools.
The second dynamic force in the contemporary Israeli educational system is the ultra-Orthodox political parties, whose education systems are growing, both due to high fertility rates and to the recruitment of poor, mainly Mizrahi families, who have helplessly stood by watching the weakening of state schools, without being able to compete in an education market controlled by market forces.