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Israël: United Torah Judaism (UTJ) Coalition Deal Forces Local Gov’ts to Fund All ultra-Orthodox Schools

Sunday 25 December 2022, by siawi3


UTJ Coalition Deal Forces Local Gov’ts to Fund All ultra-Orthodox Schools

The agreement between Likud and United Torah Judaism, revealed on Thursday, shows that the move toward greater local control of education budgets will be reversed, and municipalities will have to fund thousands of new institutions

Photo: Students enter an ultra-Orthodox educational institution, 2021.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Lior Dattel

Dec 24, 2022 11:39 pm IST

Last week was a particularly busy one for Finance Committee chairman MK Moshe Gafni. On every opportunity he got, he attacked reports on United Torah Judaism’s excessive demands in negotiations with Likud regarding Haredi education, arguing that all the slate wanted was for Haredi teachers to not earn slave wages. “What will they say to the shameful hunger suffered by Haredi schoolteachers, who receive meager, pitiful salaries?” he shouted from the Knesset dais.

But on Thursday, it was revealed that United Torah Judaism actually demanded (and received) quite a lot. Among its dozens of demands in the field of education: To take over budgets for the Education Ministry and municipalities while subjecting them to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and UTJ.

In addition to increasing the budgets of private schools that do not teach core curriculum subjects – exempt institutions and small yeshivas, which collectively educate over 100,000 students – the agreement guarantees billions of shekels from ministry and municipal budgets to other Haredi facilities: Daycares, kindergartens and schools.

Photo: Students at an ultra-Orthodox school in Jerusalem, 2007.Credit: Eyal Varshavsky

Municipalities are currently required to shoulder part of the funding for some Haredi schools. According to the new agreement, the municipalities will now be required to participate in the financing of all Haredi educational institutions – including private kindergartens, schools that don’t teach core curriculum subjects, and small yeshivas.

The agreement bars municipalities from “revolting” against this decree, stating that local governments which refuse to comply will be fined. In such a case, the Education Ministry will subtract part of the municipality’s budget and give it to the Haredi schools.

This is a harsh blow to the local governments, as there are over 4,000 private Haredi kindergartens throughout the country and many other institutions exempted from teaching core curriculum subjects which they will now be forced to fund. Jerusalem alone has nearly 1,000 private Haredi kindergartens, and there are dozens in Tel Aviv as well. It seems that all of the demands by Netanyahu’s partners – even the most excessive – have been granted.

Supervising themselves

In the agreement, Netanyahu commits to building 700 new classrooms each year for Haredi education, declaring that budget additions to Haredi education will be “the first priority.”

Another clause states that Gafni and UTJ chairman Yitzhak Goldknopf will lead a team with Education and Finance Ministry representatives to determine the Education Ministry’s budgetary allocations. These decisions will be binding upon the incoming Education Minister, who will also have to share power with another minister in the ministry, from Shas.

Photo: Degel Hatorah chairman Moshe Gafni and UTJ chairman Yitzchak Goldknopf at a faction meeting on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Education Ministry will also lose its ability to supervise Haredi schools, as its Haredi education district – which was formed under Netanyahu in 2013 – will be dismantled and defanged. Likewise, the ministry’s enforcement powers will be severely curtailed. It will not be able to reduce funding for schools that don’t teach core subjects, nor freeze budgets for schools exceeding their allocations due to irregular conduct or misappropriation of funds.

These efforts all undermine the move toward greater local control of schools, which increased due to grassroots demand during the COVID crisis, and which the outgoing government began to address through the Gefen reforms. Now, not only will municipalities not be able to make decisions based on their own residents’ needs and interests, they will be forced to fund thousands of Haredi institutions which they didn’t finance until now. This will impact not only municipalities with large Haredi populations, like Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Tiberias – but also largely secular ones.

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Contrary to calming messages from the government on the possibility of canceling some of the agreement’s provisions, most will be applicable from the moment the government is sworn in, as they require no legislative amendments or complex regulations. Meanwhile, since the highlights of this agreement were published, Haim Bibas, the chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel – has remained silent.