Petach Tikva has always been in the forefront of the debate over exclusivity and inclusion in the state religious school system.
Introduction: A Short History of Integration and Private Schools in Petach Tikva
Petach Tikva has both affluent and poor neighborhoods. There has long been bad feeling when integration in elementary school has been “forced.” The resentment increased with the establishment of private schools that drew affluent children from the public religious schools and left a higher percentage of weaker and poorer students in the public system.
This resentment existed even when the socioeconomic, cultural, religious and educational differences between the two groups being integrated—Ashkenazim and Yemenites, for the most part—were not nearly as great as the differences now seen between the Ethiopian immigrants and the native population. These battles often made the papers, including twice when two of my older children started first grade as my youngest child will (might) tomorrow. The battles are still fresh in our minds, and their aftermath affects private relationships, the social fabric of the religious community and the city itself, and every child in religious schools today.
The private schools receive about 70% of their funding from the educational ministry, which allocates a set amount per student no matter what school they attend, and from the municipality. All of them study rent-free on public land, and one of them received a state-of-the-art building. True, children in that school learned in leaky caravans for many years, but potential parents only see the new building that is much more attractive than my children’s adequate state-religious school.
The Ethiopian Immigrants and the Religious Issue
The rabbinate’s requirements for conversion of the Ethiopian immigrant children includes their enrollment in a religious school. Large numbers of immigrants have moved in recent years to Petach Tikva, including 290 children who arrived over the summer and 80-120 expected after the fall holidays. These children were assigned to both state religious and private schools, but the private schools have refused to accept them.
Concerns of the State Religious Schools
There are two main reasons why the religious public schools in Petach Tikva insist that the exclusive, private schools accept a proportionate number of Ethiopian students:
- The private schools serve as unfair competition to the religious school system. Private schools have already led to the demise or near-demise of several state religious schools. Obligating the state religious schools to take large groups of weaker students puts the schools at even more of a disadvantage when parents are considering their options.
- If parents want to separate themselves from the community and only learn with their own kind, they should pay the real price for this privilege. Public funds should not go toward schools whose main interest is not in a particular type of education, but in keeping some children out.
Ronit Tirosh’s View
Kadima’s Ronit Tirosh, the director of the education ministry, said on the radio that the concern of the public religious schools is that if large numbers of Ethiopians are absorbed into their system, parents with means will either migrate to private schools or leave to another school district. This has happened in at least one Petach Tikva school and in Or Yehuda, Netanya and elsewhere. If the Ethiopians become the majority the whole point of their integration, to absorb them into mainstream Israeli society, is negated.
There are only five state religious schools in Petach Tikva and three private ones. Tirosh advocates a solution that places the children in the larger, non-religious state school system and distributes new immigrants in smaller groups among more municipalities so as not to overwhelm any one system.
Concerns of the Private Schools
The private schools, for their part, maintain that their concern is pedagogical and not racial. The higher religious and (supposedly) higher academic level means that the immigrants will not fit in. But due to their lack of Hebrew and limited knowledge of Judaism they are likely to have a difficult time in any school, especially a religious one. The differences between the curriculum of the public and private schools is exaggerated. In other words, they won’t fit in to the state religious schools any more than into the private ones.
The private schools insist that the children will be better off in separate classes until they can catch up. This may or may not be true, but I doubt that the interest of the Ethiopian children is behind this assertion.
The private schools also ask why the many haredi schools in the city have not been pressured to accept more students or threatened with closure, as the private schools have.
For the record, both private school and public school parents benefit when there is competition between them. Parents often find that a particular school does not meet their needs, or the private school rejects their children even though the family is a good match. And in theory, competition can lead to better education.
Some of the solutions suggested by the private schools involve testing or interviewing new immigrants before assigning them to a school. The state religious schools have rejected these options because it would mean taking the stronger ones, whether on the basis of religious level, academic level, or behavior, and leaving the ones with problems for the state religious school to deal with. The original distribution by the city was according to last name.
Where It Stands Now
I’m off to my child’s meeting with the new first-grade teacher. As of now, no solution has been reached and all of the public schools in Petach Tikva, religious or not, are threatening to strike. At least two of the private schools have also suspended classes during the crisis. Let’s hope this can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and that all of the country’s children can start school as scheduled.