The price of free education

back to school
Credit: Martin Vorel

We have a law here in Israel guaranteeing free education from age 3, through the completion of high school. That free education costs me between 3000-5000 shekels per child once we got to high school. And I’m not the only one in the country paying for free, public education. And I’m not even paying the most. It’s not really legal and it’s not really illegal. Parents, like me, are forced into a fantastic loophole in the law of free education that blackmails me to the tune of thousands of shekels to allow my children to receive their rightful education. I’m either being held hostage or blackmailed, or perhaps both.

Allow me to explain. I live in Yokneam Illit, a small town in the north of Israel, near Haifa. We are Conservative/Masorti in our religious observance, which puts us firmly between the public secular school option and the public national religious school option. It is our right to choose and so we have opted for the national religious track for our children. This is a fully recognized and approved track of schooling here under the auspices of the Ministry of Education. For elementary school (1st-6th grades) our children could attend the national religious elementary school in town.

When our children finished the 6th grade a whole new world of middle and high school opens up before us. Much like in the US, 7th-12th grades require additional teachers and subjects, including more advanced classroom and laboratory facilities. Therefore, to support a middle/high school, you need more students. And, when kids get to these formative years, in the national religious schooling track, boys and girls are most often separated (I’m not going to get into the arguments for or against this). There are a handful of mixed gender, national religious middle/high schools, it’s not unheard of. Schools face an added layer of complexity for school enrollment requirements. If our national religious elementary school scrapes by with enrollment numbers, and a large number of those kids don’t want a religious middle/high school as it is, and a religious middle/high school has to be gender segregated, well, if you are a product of the public school system, I bet you can do the math.

We don’t have the population to support a national religious middle/high school in Yokneam Illit. Not even a mixed boys-girls school. And that’s okay.

Our kids are able to attend nearby schools in communities with sufficient numbers of kids or who can provide a regional option. Any other set up would be an egregious waste of educational resources. And here’s where the price starts adding up. And where parents find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Sometimes kids can make use of public transit to get from one community to another. There obviously have to be limits to the length of the commute, the number of bus lines necessary, and the walking distance at both ends of the trip. Up to 90 minutes of a commute, on no more than 2 bus routes (i.e., one change mid-route), with no more than a quarter kilometer walk on either side, strikes me, and many parents as a reasonable set of parameters. The Ministry of Education doesn’t outline it that well, but rather offers a general statement about the presence or availability of public transit. This is where the loophole begins to loosen up.

The Ministry of Education, in it’s official publication (it’s in Hebrew), makes it clear that they will provide a middle/high school student between 50-85% of a monthly bus pass on public transit! The expectation is that the municipality will make up the remaining 50-15% in all their glorious generosity, but it is not explicitly required! The poorer your municipality, the more the government kicks in, but never the full 100%. And our 11th and 12th graders are entitled to even less than the younger kids. The logic of that last bit escapes me completely.

For those who have an option of a national religious school that is on a reasonable public transit route, this is indeed a viable option. But what about for those who don’t have that as an option? Many communities are not well linked between each other, and certainly not to schools nestled in bucolic corners of towns, with accessible bus stops. And I’m not even getting into the patchy bus schedules we often see here. In that case, which is the case for my children and their classmates from town, we have arrived at that expensive loophole.

The parents have the pleasure of paying for a school bus service, even though the Ministry of Education guidelines say it’s not allowed. For the students from Yokneam Illit who learn at Kfar Hasidim, a 15 minute drive down the road, a daily bus line costs the school nearly 6000 shekels per student per year. Most of that charge is passed on to me as a parent. And I don’t really have much choice other than to pay it, or, well, homeschool. I guess.

I, along with a few other brave parents, spent a great deal of time this year battling (because that’s the only way to describe it) our local municipality and the Ministry of Education. The school was most certainly supportive and did what they could to offer an addition discount and wait patiently while we raised a ruckus at city hall. In the end Yokneam agreed to pay 3000 shekels per student (including the already guaranteed payment from the Ministry of Education for a bus pass). I wish I could agree with everyone who was so amazed that we were able to secure such a generous level of support and funding from the city. I just can’t. It’s not generous at all. It’s miserly and disrespectful to parents. The amount of time and then ultimately the amount of money that we all spent on this process is offensive. Most parents don’t engage in this battle because they are too tired, too busy, or too disillusioned to believe that the city must pay for this transportation.

(A caveat: families can choose schooling options outside of their towns that are in fact available in a similar form in their town. We did that for two years, previously. In that case parents should be on the hook for transportation.)

Unfortunately, whether intended or not, this situation quickly becomes one of discrimination – either intended or otherwise. Families wanting a religious education for their children are often forced to pay extra for that education. In our case, our other options are a boys-only Yeshiva, which has an extra tuition cost of around 4000 shekels, with a school bus paid for by the municipality. The girls-only school, nearly twice the distance, also has annual fees that are higher, closer to 4000 shekels a year, with a fully funded bus. A Yokneam family who wants a religious education will have to open their pocketbook and lighten it significantly, one way or another. I understand this to be the situation in other communities as well. All this for a legally guaranteed “free” education. The accusation of discrimination should not be necessary to ensure a equal and free education for children. And yet, all too often, it is.

This is bigger than me and my children and much larger than my municipality and our school. This loophole is holding back our children and harming the quality of their education. Instead of putting funds into the classroom, schools have to put it into subsidizing bus routes because asking parents to pay the full amount of the bus route is just too much.

And you know who pays in the end? Our kids. Which means the future of the country, too. We will soon reap the rewards of an underfunded and poorly funded educational system. This transportation loophole is just one of many, and we have to work harder to close them all. For the integrity of our educational system and for the basic respect to parents.

About the Author
Rachel Gould made aliyah in 2010 to Haifa and now lives in Yokneam. She is a PhD Candidate in Public Policy at TAU focusing on environmental and population policies. She was a candidate for city council in Yokneam on the Mekomi list in 2018.
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