Ahmir Lerner

Free education for all? No, not all

Toddlers with disabilities were left out of the government's free education program. The centers that serve them are at immediate risk of collapse
3-year-old Arielle learning to communicate using sign language at Beit Issie Shapiro's Early Intervention Center. Photo Credit: Beit Issie Shapiro

At a recent press conference, Israel’s prime minister and the minister of finance bragged about providing free education for all 0-3-year-old children in Israel at a cost of over three billion shekels. We were amazed to discover that this “free education” program does not include the early intervention centers, which are daycares for toddlers with disabilities. Children with disabilities who need these structured educational frameworks more than anything are left out of the equation. We, the heads of the disability organizations, are greatly concerned that the whole early intervention center system will collapse, leaving four thousand 0-3 year-olds with disabilities without an educational-therapeutic framework at the most critical time for their development.

It’s not surprising that parents are panicking. One of them is Tom Gabish, the father of 3-year-old Daniel who has cerebral palsy and attends an early intervention center in Haifa. He says that the progress that Daniel has made in his communication and function at his early intervention center is a miracle. In these settings, children, including Daniel, receive critical interventions, build on their success and gain tools that improve their lives now and in the future. A stable, loving framework is critical for these children and their families, especially in these early years when there is a window of opportunity. The parents of the children in Daniel’s framework haven’t been able to function for days. They are so anxious that their children will no longer have appropriate daycare and their life-changing treatments.

Our aspirations, as heads of disability organizations responsible for a system that provides services to children with disabilities, are fulfilled through the early intervention center They constantly strive to develop solutions, programs, methods and tools. They are the first stop in the life of a person with disabilities that ensure they receive the best services, are included and active, and feel like an equal and full part of Israeli society. This is a basic right that every single person deserves.

Now, we are forced to fight for their very existence. And we will fight. It is impossible not to when you see how little government representatives understand about the needs on the ground, and how poorly fateful decisions are made.

Israel’s Rehabilitative Daycare Law (2000) states that the government budget will include salaries for staff, medical and paramedical treatments and learning aids, as well as expenses involved in managing and maintaining the early intervention centers. The state is obligated by law to subsidize these centers.

Unfortunately, the state hasn’t been doing this, resulting in huge deficits that the disability organizations have carried and tried to cope with for years. In addition, we were amazed to discover that the wage agreement recently signed between the Ministry of Finance and the Histadrut General Federation of Labor in Israel does not include the early intervention centers. Our staff are not even mentioned. This creates large wage gaps between staff who work in Ministry of Education frameworks and those who work in the early intervention centers which are not under the umbrella of the Ministry of Education.

In effect, this encourages our staff to quit their jobs immediately and move to daycare frameworks that offer higher salaries. How do you expect an early intervention center to operate without any staff?

Curb the Threat of Resignations

There are no other viable settings for these children. The special education system in Israel, run by the Ministry of Education, only begins at age three; and even then, not all settings are capable of responding to all types of disabilities and needs. Infants with disabilities have no other option for care focused on their growth and development. The early intervention centers respond to the needs of a range of disabilities from mild to the most complex – cerebral palsy, autism, deafness, blindness and more.

For babies and toddlers with disabilities, the first three years are a critical window of opportunity. Studies prove that proper treatment at these ages has the most impact on children’s lives.

The budget increase we demanded, 100 million shekels, is tiny compared to what is really required. Our demand is aimed at curbing the immediate threat of resignations due to the wage gaps created in the agreement. We did not start with a high amount in order to negotiate downwards. This is not who we are and how we operate. From the beginning, we asked for a budget based on exact calculations. A hundred million shekels – this is the minimum we need to continue.

About the Author
Ahmir Lerner is the Executive Director at Beit Issie Shapiro, Israel's pioneering leader and innovator in the field of disabilities; impacting the lives of 500,000+ people globally each year. Ahmir began his career as a navigator in the Air Force. He then served for twenty two years in the Prime Minister’s Office. Ahmir left the Prime Minister’s Office to join the social sector. He worked at Education Cities as a member of the management team, after which he joined the Mandel School for Educational Leadership fellowship program. Ahmir holds a first degree in Economics and Banking from the London School of Economics and an MBA from the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.
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