Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Competition in Education Part 3: The Ethiopians in Petach Tikveh

The is the third post in an ongoing series on the effects of competition on Jewish education. The other two articles are:
Part 1: The New Program for Hesder Yeshivot
Part 2: The Hesder Yeshiva Recruiting Mess

Every year as September 1st rolls around, the Israeli press searches for a story to highlight the beginning of the school year. This year they didn't need to look very hard. The story jumped into their laps. It had a bit of racism, politics, and even an anti-religious streak. In essence, it was a perfect story for today's modern media. And they ran with it.
Here's what happened. When Ethiopians make aliyah they undergo conversion - לחומרא - "as a stringency." They do this because of the great debate about their Jewish lineage and the impossibility of ascertaining their Jewishness with any degree of certainly. In the process of conversion, they must commit to following the strictures of the Torah and sending their children to an Orthodox school - which the vast majority of them do. Here's where things get dicy.
This year, a group of Ethiopians from Petach Tikvah wanted to send their children to three "private" schools in that city. The schools, while agreeing to accept some of the children, did not agree to accept them all, insisting that the children did not meet their educational and religious requirements.
The Israeli public went, in a word, nuts. No less than the Prime Minister of Israel called this an example of "racism" and a kind of "terrorism" (a little much if you ask me). This act, in their words, violated a sacred trust of the Israeli public to accept immigrants from anywhere and integrate them into mainstream society. Under the red-hot lights of media scrutiny, the government threatened to withhold funding and actually shut down the three schools if they continued to refuse to accept these students. They finally reached a "compromise" where the schools basically caved. I would have caved too if someone threatened to shut down my school.
But what really happened here? After all, these are Religious Zionist Schools that have in the past educated many Ethiopian students, and did accept a good number of them for this year. Why, all of the sudden, did they make a stink, and find themselves in an impossible media storm that they could not anticipate?
The problem, as it turns out, has less to do with Ethiopians than the larger educational system. And unless things change fundamentally, the story about these Ethiopian students is just a harbinger of things to come.
Contrary to popular perception (outside of Israel), not all schools in Israel are "public" schools. There are huge systems of "private" schools that receive government funding. These "private" schools get a whopping 75% of their budget from the public system. Why does the government allow separate school systems to exists that cost it so much money? It probably has something to do with money. Someone a while back came to the government, cash-strapped as it always is and said, "I want to open a school for gifted students. If you let me open my own school, it will only cost you 75% of what it would normally cost you per student. The rest will come from the parents' pockets." Seeing a way to save a boatload of money, the government signed on.
But now the monster that the Israeli Department of Education created has come back to bite the system. What has emerged is a system of "haves" and "have-nots", where the public system must compete with private schools for students. The private schools are, of course, far more selective, and by definition cater to students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. And the difference in price is small enough that if a parent can afford it, he or she will pay the tuition to send her child to the "private" school.
This has led to a two-tiered system of schooling, with ever-increasing pressure on the private schools to consistently differentiate themselves from the public schools, and on the public system to maintain a level of excellence after being drained of its best students.
I feel this strain quite personally, even in Yad Binyamin, even in my own children's elementary schools. We send our kids to Breuer - a בית ספר ממלכתי דתי תורני - "a "Public Religious Torani school." It's not a regular public school. It's not even a religious public school. It's a Torani school, with extra hours and emphasis on religious instruction. (A parent in America only dreams of having the government provide this type of education.) But here in Yad Binyamin, for some parents it's not good enough. A local yeshiva with roots in Gush Katif moved to Yad Binyamin after the disengagement, and has been growing slowly ever since, transforming itself into not just a yeshiva, but an entire school system. Torat Chayim now boasts the main yeshiva, a women's Midrashah, a girls' elementary school, a boys' elementary school, a film school, a school for "Jewish counseling" and also girls' and boys' high schools. At one point, the system was really for students learning in the yeshiva and their children. But no longer. Parents from the yishuv with no real connection to the yeshiva who are looking for "more" - a greater focus on Torah learning and values, more hours of Torah instruction - have begun sending their children to Torat Chayim, as is their right. But this has created a subtle sort of pressure on other parents who "should" be sending their children to the "better" school, and even more importantly, has begun to empty Breuer of the more advanced children and even more observant children who would have otherwise rounded out the school's population. This eventually may force parents looking for a more advanced Judaic curriculum, or just friends who are passionate about their Judaism, to remove their children from the public school, as the public option lacks a critical mass of students necessary for a positive group dynamic.
What's happening in Yad Binyamin has happened across Israel. Public schools - even religious ones (Mamadim Datiim) find themselves emptied of their best students, left to try and do their best without the strongest parts of the population, who would have been their advanced students, role models and greatest products.
At the same time, the private schools have begun to compete with one another to attract these very same students. In a city like Petach Tikveh with a very large religious population, the competition is fierce, and can often focus on which school is "frummest". So the schools impose restrictions, some sensible (like what type of internet service you have in your home) and some silly (rabbis must have beards) to one-up their competition.
Into this context entered the Ethiopian children.
The Ethiopians by and large do not excel academically; they lag behind in their Hebrew language ability, and many do not rigorously follow the strictures of the Torah. A large enough group in a single school will undoubtedly band together, creating a separate stream within the context of the school. So these three "private" schools, while they agreed to take a limited number of children, were not willing to take such a substantial number that it would alter the focus and nature of the school.
They were wrong, but were in the end simply reacting to market forces. After all, if they get a name as a magnet for Ethiopian children, then parents will stop sending their children to these elite private schools.
And in the world of competitive education in which we live, that's a fate that must be avoided at almost any cost. No matter which immigrant gets hurt.