It’s that time of year, when parents are running around applying to elementary school. Most families only make the decision with their oldest, so they must consider carefully.
In the religious Zionist school system, grade school options generally include:
a) Government-sponsored, public “mamlachti dati” school, known as “mamad” for short.
b) “Mamad torani.” The main differences between mamad and mamad torani are that a torani school has more leeway in selection, which they use to avoid admitting children from non-sabbath-observant families, and they charge an additional fee for enriched religious studies (in my local school this comes to NIS 70/month for an extra five hours per week).
c) Private. All private schools are heavily subsidized by the government. The way the system works, any registered school can apply for official status and receive the amount per child that the government would have paid to the public school. (This is why Safranit refers to her choices as “semi-private.”) This hurts public schools because they receive less funding, and the minimal monthly fee of NIS 400-500 ($100) makes private schools very competitive with the public system. The municipality may grant extra funds to both public and private institutions.
More details of the costs for all age levels here.
So what are the advantages and disadvantages of the various systems? Well, in most communities you won’t have the option of choosing between a mamad and a mamad/torani; you are limited to what you have in the neighborhood. Keep in mind that the “torani” label was not always implemented in order to foster a stronger religious environment; it’s used to keep out “undesirables” such as sefaradim, some of whom want a religious education despite not wearing a kippah and even driving on Shabbat. Extremely modern Orthodox, Ashkenazi families who are minimally observant are never excluded. The excuses used for this policy are usually along the lines of, “But what if one of these children invites my child to a birthday party?” At any rate, the torani school my children attended used the funds for enrichment only loosely based on Torah i.e. Jewish music, Jewish art, etc. Boys in upper grades received extra hours of gemara, to prepare them for yeshiva high school, but the parents were uninterested in religious enrichment for their daughters (to say the least, and I tried).
In most cases, parents must choose between a mamad/mamad torani and one or more private schools. This post was prompted by a conversation with a distressed mother of a five-year-old girl from my son’s gan. She is torn between the mamad torani and a private “chardal” (charedi/dati-leumi i.e. right-wing religious Zionist) school. Most people from my shul and my social circle send to the private school, but in all the years I have lived here I have never heard one of them say that it is a good school. Not one. (Update: I met one.) If you ask them why they send there they will all say that it is because of the “chevrah,” or social circle. The mother in question said that the local mamad was unquestionably superior, and the only thing she was worried about was who would be her daughter’s friends.
Why pay more for inferior education? Exclusivity, of course. Each school has its own criteria. However, it depends on the year. If registration is high, the school can be more selective. When starting out, or in years with a small pool of applicants, the standards get lower. The schools often have admission exams and/or interviews as well, but they are much more lenient regarding subsequent children. The chardal school in question wants mothers with a hair covering, but there are quite a few mothers without because their older children were accepted in a year with lower admission standards. And because they charge a fee and scholarships are unavailable, there is also a default socioeconomic self-selection. Unfortunately, affluence and stricter observance don’t always translate into good middot and healthy friendships, but I understand the attraction.
If the only reason parents are sending to private school is social, they are kicking themselves in the foot. Why pay for inferior schools, when good public schools exist? Especially if they are torani and in your own neighborhood? If the parents would all get together and send to the mamad (admittedly, they would not all go to the same mamad as the private school draws families from various neighborhoods) the problem would be solved.
A very wise woman once told me: We all want our kids to go to exclusive schools. But then the day comes when such a school rejects our children. We rant and rave against the system, but we have only ourselves to blame for supporting it. Now, the private school can kick out a violent, uncontrollable child more easily. However, I have seen many cases where kids were asked to leave for all kinds of reasons. Usually it has more to do with who the parents are (or aren’t) than anything else.I know of one case where a vindictive child’s parents conducted a campaign to remove the child’s classmate, and it worked. I also know of problematic children from “good families” who stayed. If there are serious problems with a particular child private schools generally don’t have the resources or the desire to work them out. I have seen children neglected and mistreated in the public school system as well. But there the parents have recourse. The principal has a boss, the “mefakachat,” (supervisor) whose job it is to ensure that standards are met. And the mefakachat has a boss too, all the way up to the Minister of Education. You can’t always get around the bureaucracy, but the channels are in place.
The main advantage of the public school is pikuach, or supervision. The teachers get better salaries and working conditions. Not surprisingly, the more talented ones prefer to work through the Education Ministry and not in the private system. They get better training and supervision, too. They have more resources. The school counselor and psychologist work longer hours. In my experience, the classes are not necessarily larger than in the private schools although this varies widely from year to year. The municipality keeps class size small so that the public school will stay competitive. In a private school, your children are more likely to need a ride to visit their friends.
The cost of tuition seems minimal when your oldest is starting first grade, especially when just two years earlier at age four you were paying about NIS 800 for public preschool. But when you have, say, two kids in private elementary school and two in yeshiva high school where the cheapest options about about NIS 800/month and your food bill has doubled or tripled, you really have to ask yourself whether it was worth it. As one mother told me, “Any money I might have put away to buy my kids apartments went to their elementary school tuition instead.”
Important note: Parents can learn a lot about a school by closely comparing the curriculum of boys and girls throughout elementary school, if they learn separately.
May Hashem grant all parents the wisdom to make the right choices for their children.