Already reeling from the Coronavirus pandemic, Israel’s education system, which relies heavily on the third sector, suffered another traumatic blow this month: Budgetary infighting between ministries means that the government is withholding 1.4 billion shekels of funding for extramural programs. The victims: Underprivileged kids in the hardest-hit areas. A special Shomrim analysis

A failing grade for Israel’s outsourced education system

Already reeling from the Coronavirus pandemic, Israel’s education system, which relies heavily on the third sector, suffered another traumatic blow this month: Budgetary infighting between ministries means that the government is withholding 1.4 billion shekels of funding for extramural programs. The victims: Underprivileged kids in the hardest-hit areas. A special Shomrim analysis

Already reeling from the Coronavirus pandemic, Israel’s education system, which relies heavily on the third sector, suffered another traumatic blow this month: Budgetary infighting between ministries means that the government is withholding 1.4 billion shekels of funding for extramural programs. The victims: Underprivileged kids in the hardest-hit areas. A special Shomrim analysis

Ze’ela Kotler Hadari

Photos: Karev Program; Maayan Kaufman; Shutterstock. The Photographs bellow are courtesy of the photographers and the related organizations

August 5, 2020

Summary

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o one could have foreseen the turmoil that hit the second half of the past school year, and complaining about it in the early stages didn’t seem right. The Coronavirus crisis hit Israel and the rest of the world without warning, crippling entire sectors and industries, and sending hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the employment bureaus, while their confused children logged into a mishmash of Zoom sessions with bewildered teachers and poor connectivity.

One could have expected, and certainly hoped, that the five months that have passed since the outbreak of the pandemic - including the "summer vacation," which remained impervious to the crisis - would give the education system time to educate itself and to turn the upcoming school year, which is less than a month away, into a corrective experience for Israeli children and their parents. But this expectation - this hope - was dashed with alarming swiftness.

Instead of deploying an emergency educational־social parachute that would give everyone a soft landing into the next school year, the Education Ministry announced earlier this month that it was freezing some 1.4 billion shekels in funding for a wide range of educational programs. The excuse, which is sure to be of much interest to third־graders who’ll be denied a variety of extramural activities, is that the Finance Ministry refuses to approve the budgets to pay for these programs.

The reason for the treasury’s refusal, which fifth־graders are bound to find more captivating than an experimental piece of theater sponsored by the Culture Ministry, is that there’s no state budget for the coming year because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz are busy scrapping in the schoolyard. If that sounds absurd - it is.

"Our children are the least of the government’s concerns right now," a senior official in the supplementary education system tells Shomrim. "And clearly the ones who will suffer most from the suspension of all these programs are the children in the peripheries - not those in wealthy areas, where the local council can make up the shortfall. The civic sector in Israel is up against the reality of a befuddled country that’s slamming on the brakes. They expect us to take risks, but we aren’t built for that kind of thing. We’re holding on to employees even though we’re out of funding. We can’t go on like this."

Dr. Nir Michaeli: "To fulfill its responsibilities vis־à־vis social services, the state has to draw red lines, and the current crisis has only heightened this need. It has to determine, in no uncertain terms, which things aren’t going to be outsourced to private organizations, and to insist not only on funding them, but also running them."

Dr. Nir Michaeli

Many of the affected programs are run by educational nonprofit organizations. Indeed, the Israeli education system relies heavy on such volunteer organizations, commonly referred to here as the third sector. These programs employ thousands of people and provide social and educational services to hundreds of thousands of students, with an emphasis on - but not limited to - the socio־geographic periphery.

"If you’re asking me what the state has done for the nonprofits, then my answer is: Nothing," says the director of one nongovernmental organization that runs educational programs. "We, as NGOs, are questioning our ability to hold on to our staff, who form the backbone of the entire organization. Can I hold on to the CFO and the social worker, or do I place everyone on unpaid leave and run the risk of losing human capital in the interim? The indifference of the Education Ministry is beyond belief. After all, if the NGOs don’t provide these services, no one will fill the void and social divides will get wider and wider."

Another second senior official in the field has a similarly gloomy perspective, but it slightly more cautious. "What we’re witnessing now is very strange," he says. "It’s as if the Education Ministry has decided not to decide, and simply to put everything on ice. It’s a political issue, of course, as there’s no state budget, but it’s also a technical one. I believe the larger programs, like the Culture Basket, will be able to continue, albeit with a slashed budgets and far fewer activities, but many smaller programs will be shut down completely."

The price of privatization

Israel’s education system relies entirely on the third sector for informal and supplementary educational programs. Moreover, these programs can be put on hold in their entirety just weeks before the start of the new school year - just because of politicians’ bickering.

In order to understand how we arrived at this dire situation, we need the perspective of an overall view. According to an investigative report published as far back as 2014 in TheMarker, close to one־quarter of the Education Ministry’s budget is spent on educational services, ranging from school meals through to enrichment programs, which are outsourced to private organizations. According to the data unearthed in the report, the ministry outsources to the tune of 11 billion shekels a year. Given that the 2018 budget for the Education Ministry stood at 50 billion shekels, the cost of outsources will have been even higher in later years.

An Education Ministry report, published in June 2020 and relating to the previous year, details the scope of the support. For example, support for organizations involved in education, including around 200 NGOs, amounted to 474 million shekels; support for Orthodox Jewish educational institutions, involving 330 NGOs, totaled 1.2 billion shekels.

Dr. Nir Michaeli, rector of the Oranim Academic College of Education and former chairman of the Education Ministry’s Pedagogical Secretariat, claims that the education system has been privatizing its services for decades. Now, he adds, in the midst of a colossal crisis, the price of this policy is becoming apparent.

"There are channels through which the state can provide funds to the third sector," he says. "But when things get shaken up, we see just how easy it is for the whole thing to fall apart. And if these [extramural] activities aren’t part of the core curriculum, there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue for very long. The NGOs can’t make long־term commitments to their employees because they’re relying on budgets they can’t be sure of receiving."

How do we make sure our children receive these vital services even in times of crisis?

"The state determines education policies, sets budgets for them, implements and oversees them. But when it comes to various kinds of educational services, and certainly the informal programs that are run by the third sector, even in post־elementary education, high schools are no longer owned by the state, but by the local authorities and private networks. To fulfill its responsibilities vis־à־vis social services, the state has to draw red lines, and the current crisis has only heightened this need. It has to determine, in no uncertain terms, which things aren’t going to be outsourced to private organizations, and to insist not only on funding them, but also running them.

"The Culture Basket, for example, is perceived as a luxury, something that’s nice to have - and that’s a problem. The state needs to define whether cultural and art־related studies, and exposing children and youth to a wide range of both, and not only TikTok, is a national objective - just like the study of higher־grade math. And if so, it needs to treat it the same and put it in the core curriculum. Just like there’s a math lesson, there’s a culture lesson too. If you ask me, it’s no less important. The current crisis has given us a chance to look at what, in keeping with national policy, is inside the fence and what’s on the outside."

How do things work elsewhere in the world?

"Elsewhere, there’s a very clear distinction between private and public education, and for those who choose private education, there’s no funding from the state and the fees are very high. In Israel, there’s almost no private education, so it’s hard to compare, as the education system in Israel actually provides a public service to the entire population. This is not the case in most other [education] systems around the world."

The Mifras Program: "There aren’t many high־quality programs for school principals, and the Program's activities fill a void" says Ne'eman

So, the price we pay for public education comes in the form of the privatization of the supplementary activities, along with the inherent risk that in times of crisis, we’ll be left with a narrow־minded, but subsidized, public education system?

"It's part of the price. That's exactly why we need for philanthropy or private entities and payments from the parents, and the NGOs fill this vacuum."

There are cases, like the Karev Program for Educational Involvement for example, in which philanthropic funds establish an informal educational program, and following its success, it’s adopted by the Education Ministry, which then matches the independent income shekel for shekel.

"Yes, the Karev Program came about as a three־way collaboration between a private foundation, the Education Ministry and local authorities, with the original idea being to use private funding to provide outlying local authorities with educational activities in the fields of astronomy and music, which aren’t part of the curriculum. You could say it’s good that the system relies on outside funding, or you could look at it differently: If the activities are so important, then why doesn’t the state take responsibility for them and add them to the core curriculum?"

Thrown to the dogs

Because instructors and teachers in these informal educational programs are hired as contractual workers, the model also creates employment conundrums, one of which the Labor Court was called on recently to address. Attorney Gil Bar־Tal, chairman of Israel’s largest professional union, Histadrut HAMAOF, filed a petition against the Israel Association of Community Centers and the education and finance ministries, in which he demanded a halt to the dismissal of some 4,000 Karev Program employees - instructors and teachers working in the framework of a program designed to broaden knowledge and skills among students.

Attorney Gil Bar־Tal: "It's all very sad. Karev is a program that has existed for three decades, and some teachers have been with the program for more than 25 years. These teachers were the first ones to be placed on unpaid leave, and even though they were on unpaid leave, they remained in touch with the students on Zoom to engage in singing activities or exercise sessions. They gave of themselves. Now, they’ve been thrown to the dogs, and the students are going to lose out on education."

Attorney Gil Bar־Tal

The program operates primarily in the socio־geographic periphery, in 118 local authorities across the country. According to legend, it began in the 1990s, when philanthropists Charles and Andrea Bronfman took a tour of Beit Shemesh, a predominantly working־class and ultra־Orthodox city some 20 miles outside Jerusalem. They came across children playing in the streets in the early afternoon and came up with the vision of a long school day filled with enriching educational activities for the good of the children and their parents. The program began as a pilot, with philanthropic funding, and was subsequently adopted by the Education Ministry. Karev is run by the Tafnit Association, with an annual budget of close to a quarter of a billion shekels.

"We’re already witnessing the dire consequences of privatizing large parts of the education system, and this is a serious manifestation of them," Bar־Tal wrote in a letter last week to the prime minister, the finance minister and the minister of education, urging them to find a budgetary solution that will allow Karev Program’s employees to keep their jobs. "We’re trying to prevent a lowering of the standard of education, the wasting of state resources, the discarding of the program’s achievements, and the imposition of additional costs on local authorities and parents."

There have also been calls for the integration of these employees - teachers and instructors hired by the NGOs as contractual workers - into the educational workforce that will have to be boosted ahead of the coming school year, in which classes are expected to be split into smaller groups.

"For now, they’re brushing us off and can’t find time to meet with us, even though the judge said in his ruling that he was suspending the dismissals and insisted that the directors־general of the ministries find a solution," Bar־Tal tells Shomrim. "Because the Education Ministry stated that it supports the Karev Program but needs a budget. And the Finance Ministry said it has no state budget. The indifference, contempt, bureaucracy and negligence are having a field day."

The workers aren’t the only ones who are suffering

"The petition states the Education Ministry privatized all supplementary education, privatized physical education services, art, culture, dance and everything else that isn’t part of the core curriculum in the periphery, and they all became part of the Karev Program. But today they’re saying: Oy, I don’t actually have a budget. The immediate victims will be the children in the periphery, alongside some 4,000 people employed by the program. The education and finance ministries aren’t communicating with one another. The judge ordered them to send officials with decision־making powers, but they sent low־level officials.

Clockwise from top left: The play "Extra Large" by Beersheba theater (Photo: Maayan Kaufman); Tomer Rathaus in a play by the Maayn theater; Musicians from the Yara Program

"It's all very sad. Karev is a program that has existed for three decades, and some teachers have been with the program for more than 25 years. These teachers were the first ones to be placed on unpaid leave, and even though they were on unpaid leave, they remained in touch with the students on Zoom to engage in singing activities or exercise sessions. They gave of themselves. Now, they’ve been thrown to the dogs, and the students are going to lose out on education."

Another program in jeopardy due to the absence of a budget from the Education Ministry is Milat, which also provides a long school day for children in the socio־geographic periphery. Milat started out as a pilot with philanthropic backing, too, before funding moved into the hands of the Education Ministry, local authorities and the parents. Earlier this month, Michael Chen, the director of the Tafnit Association, which also runs Milat, urged the minister of education to avert a crisis that could affect tens of thousands of children. Milat, like other programs, has suffered losses to the tune of more than 1 million shekels, and it remains uncertain whether it will operation this coming school year.

The Mifras Educational Entrepreneurship Incubator has been another victim of the current crisis. Run by the Lautman Foundation, Mifras was set up in 2012 to create a professional platform for school principals and teachers to develop entrepreneurship and innovation in education - a much־needed commodity these days.

"We work in the field of education and believe in the autonomy and empowerment of school principals," says Yael Ne'eman, director of the Lautman Foundation. "We invite school principals from all sectors and forms of education in the country to our various programs. The Education Ministry joined the initiative at the start of our third year and matches the funding shekel for shekel, offers us broad support, and allows us to give grants to school principals, maintain an entrepreneurial incubator, and develop tools in the world of education."

And then the Coronavirus hit.

"When the crisis first started, the Education Ministry put the brakes on. We were told in March that the initiative has been suspended, but they subsequently renewed it because we were holding activities tailored to the situation. We called in educators and said to them: Let's use this difficult period, which has undermined all paradigms and assumptions, and study what can be done. It’s an opportunity. We embarked on a very professional and in־depth process, the results of which we’ll be presenting this week to the Knesset Education Committee. The Education Ministry kept the funds coming up until the end of August, but now, the treasury has told the ministry, categorically, not to renew any external engagement, which means we’ve been left with just half the budget."

Can you start the school year like this?

"We don’t know when the budget will be reinstated, and even when it is renewed, we know how the government works - it’s never willing to pay retroactively; after all, the NGO is holding on to its staff and we won’t be dismissing employees. There aren’t many high־quality programs for school principals, and the association’s activities fill a void. This is a situation unlike any other we’ve known."

The shows must go on

Another long־standing and prestigious program that made headlines last week, and may even be heading for an interim that does no more than paper over the cracks, is the Culture Basket. Established in 1987, the National Culture Basket aims to expose students to stage performances, museums, seminars with writers and dance shows. In addition to providing massive added value to children from kindergarten to high school, the subsidized program also provides a livelihood to a large number of artists and performers. The program has an annual budget of around 60 million shekels, half of which is covered by the Education Ministry. Like many other education programs, local authorities and payments from parents make up the rest of the budget.

The Culture Basket is operated by the Israel Association of Community Centers, an executive arm of the Education Ministry which runs informal educational programs and has an annual budget of hundreds of millions of shekels. After extracurricular programs were suspended, the Culture Basket was also put on hold, leading to protests on the part of the artists, whose livelihoods were affected, and the parents, who view cultural education as no less important than arithmetic classes.

In light of the public pressure, including a demonstration on his very doorstep, Education Minister Yoav Galant announced this week on Twitter that a solution has been found and that 8 million shekels has been allocated to allow the Culture Basket program to continue to the end of the year. He did, however, add a caveat, and passed on responsibility to the Knesset Education Committee, which is refusing for now to discuss one of the basket’s three sources of funding - payments from parents.

Ayelet Barel: "We’re stuck in limbo and a state of distress like never before. As an NGO we can’t get loans or bank credit. Today, most of the money we receive comes from public appeals and donors, and that’s usually after the fact. But how can you put on performances when you don’t have any independent revenue?"

Ayelet Barel (Photo: Maayan Kaufman)

"We’re stuck in limbo and a state of distress like never before," says Ayelet Barel, director of the Be'er Sheva Children's Theater, which relies on the Culture Basket’s activities for 70 percent of its income. "Because there’s no state budget, we won’t be getting our support from the Culture Ministry. And if they shut down the Culture Basket program, because the Education Ministry doesn’t have the budget or its budget has been cut, it will affect our principal source of income - shows for educational institutions, from kindergartens and through to high schools. We’re an NGO, and we can’t get loans or bank credit. Today, most of the money we receive comes from public appeals and donors, and that’s usually after the fact. But how can you put on performances when you don’t have any independent revenue? We have 70 actors and stage 300 shows a year, and we were planning a performance for the Bedouin community this year too. But without the Culture Basket, no one will get to see it. Fortunately, we’re getting support these days from the local authority and the Negev Development Authority."

When the Finance Ministry tells the Education Ministry, which tells the Israel Association of Community Centers, which tells you, the artists and performers, that there’s no Culture Basket, they’re saying, in essence, that culture and art aren’t really educational needs

"They probably don’t understand the value of theater and stage shows for children in educational institutions, and just how immense it is. Someone who hasn’t observed children at these shows can’t grasp the power that art has to encourage discourse among youth. We have a show, for example, that’s called Extra Large, which deals with the issues of body image and social pressure. The show, when staged for high schools, always prompted a discussion of these issues in the classroom, and the teenagers engaged in authentic conversation. School isn’t just about grades; schools need to teach values and norms, and culture is the best agent for doing so. It has the power to broaden the children’s horizons. It mustn’t be taken away from them."

Tomer Rathaus is in a similar predicament - but twice over. He runs two informal frameworks that have been incorporated into schools and are included in the Culture Basket - an NGO by the name of Adama, which offers enrichment and experience via drama and acting methods, and the Ma’ayan Children’s Theater, which dramatizes stories from the Bible. "We provide enrichment to a variety of audiences of varying socioeconomic standing from different parts of the country - from development towns and immigrant children and through to wealthier cities," he says.

What support do you get from the Education Ministry?

"The Education Ministry’s support for our activities is calculated according to the number of days we put on shows for the students. If there’s nothing to calculate, there’s no support. As an NGO, we placed everyone on unpaid leave when the crisis started, but we still have ongoing costs and we’re in a bind. The Coronavirus outbreak put a stop to our activities in schools, and when the closure was lifted, not all of the schools agreed to allow us in. Some didn’t want to because we go to various other schools, and others chose to focus on the core curriculum. Our future is shrouded in mist.

"Unfortunately, the government’s involvement on our behalf has been very tenuous. We don’t feel that anyone understands that we’re an NGO with employees and another circle of service providers, and that we’re broken and shattered now. The school year’s about to begin, we’ve adapted our activities to the Coronavirus directives and the plans to conduct classes in smaller groups, the so־called capsule method, and we’ve also put together programs that are suitable for viewing online. But all these entail development costs of thousands of shekels for content writers and tech people, and I wouldn’t dare to take on any financial commitments right now.

"We’re approaching the very edge of the diving board but don’t dare to jump, because we have no idea if there’ll be any water in the pool. While the business sector is indeed getting attention, it seems like the third sector has simply been forgotten. We do a lot for society and employ a large number of people, but our voices aren’t being heard."

No one’s immune

The distress signals are getting louder, with uncertainty and budget woes hanging over the coming school year also affecting NGOs that are involved in music education and conduct a range of activities for school children, like the Beit Almusica conservatory in Shfaram or the Yara Program that operates in the Druze sector.

Lior Finkel־Perl: Everything seems to be carrying on like normal, but that’s just one big optical illusion; the nonprofits are scraping the barrel for every shekel so they can continue their activities and continue providing services to the weaker sectors of the population. In the end, however, because of the issue of the state budget, 2021 is expected to be a destructive year for all social services."

Lior Finkel־Perl

There are endless examples. According to a recent report, the Education Ministry has informed the Israel Association of Community Centers that there’s no budget for programs for at־risk youth. This means that the Hila Program - run by the IACC with financial support from the Education Ministry and local authorities, and working to help thousands of at־risk youths who have dropped out of school - won’t be able to continue its operations in the coming school year. The program’s employees, including more than a thousand teachers, will soon be getting letters of dismissal.

Even anchor institutions like the National Library aren’t immune. The library announced just recently that it has no choice but to suspend all its activities and close its doors - no more reading rooms, no more book borrowing, and yes, the cancelation of training courses for teachers and educators too. The library’s employees will go on unpaid leave from mid־August. Some 60 percent of the library’s annual budget of 86 million shekels comes from the government. The Education Ministry has reduced its share by 8 million shekels, and an additional sum of 3.5 million shekels in independent income was lost to the Coronavirus crisis.

"With just a little flexibility, there are many things the government can do to help the nonprofits and throw them a lifeline, and they’re all related to the state budget," says Lior Finkel־Perl, CEO of Civic Leadership, the umbrella organization of the third sector and civil society organizations in Israel. "Some of the budgets have been frozen, some have been slashed, and some are operating on a bi־monthly or quarterly basis - contract dependent. Each nonprofit has to keep reviewing how it can continue its activities without really knowing the overall scope of the activities themselves.

"The ministries could ease the pressure and sign contract extensions with nonprofits with which they’re already working, and thereby give them breathing room and scope for the year ahead. With the nonprofits secure in the knowledge that their activities are guaranteed, the move would also reduce requests for assistance from the state.

Yael Ne'eman: This state of affairs, in which all of the Education Ministry’s engagements with us aren’t at the heart of its budget, makes it easy for them to be suspended, leaves civil society vulnerable and fragile, and facilitates dropping the ax on educational services that are important and beneficial to our children. The Civil society isn’t a distant relative you lend a helping hand.

Yael Ne'eman

"Because there’s no state budget, subsidies have been approved and advances have been provided, but we don’t know what the future will bring, and one of the things they’ve done during the crisis has been to suspend support and subsidies. If the state wants to maintain social services, it needs to ease the burden on nonprofits. Educational nonprofits have suffered more than the ones working in the field of welfare, but the bottom line is that we’re all operating on a shoestring. Everything seems to be carrying on like normal, but that’s just one big optical illusion; the nonprofits are scraping the barrel for every shekel so they can continue their activities and not stop providing services to the weaker sectors of the population. In the end, however, because of the issue of the state budget, 2021 is expected to be a destructive year for all social services."

Lautman Foundation director Yael Ne’eman calls for action: "I think this is an opportunity for the Education Ministry to take a good look at civil society and the world of the nonprofits, and to realize that education is not the realm of the Education Ministry alone and that it needs to join hands with informal organizations," she says. "This state of affairs, in which all of the Education Ministry’s engagements with us aren’t at the heart of its budget, makes it easy for them to be suspended, leaves civil society vulnerable and fragile, and facilitates dropping the ax on educational services that are important and beneficial to our children. I call on all the ministries involved in education: Civil society isn’t a distant relative you lend a helping hand to. Today, civil society is a true partner to the education process in Israel."

The Education Ministry’s response to the issues raised in this article was laconic and evasive. "The Education Ministry has not halted any of these programs. These programs and numerous others aren’t active at present as there is no state budget," Shomrim was told.

The Finance Ministry, during a recent meeting of the Knesset Education Committee which discusses the Karev Program crisis, stated simply that, "We have no solutions. We’re facing a financially challenging year."