The academic year has started, and with it a renewed debate in Israel over the issue of inequality in the educational system. Private schools in Israel are quite rare, but due to decades of underfunding by the government, a tier-based system has been created, and loopholes were used to allow wealthier parents to fund better education for their children.

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First grade students sit in a classroom on their first day of school in Ma'ale Adumim, September 1, 2016. (Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90)

After several decades of consistent cuts in government spending of education, schools and students in Israel face a grim reality: more and more of the education system must rely on private funding.

"They ask for more and more additional payments, it never ends. I can't cope with it, I simply can't. I have to pay 1,000 NIS for nursery, another 800 NIS for additional activities at school. That's before daycare for the kids until I finish work. That’s thousands of shekels a month," Uriah Ben Ya'akov, a single mother of three children, told Davar.

The government's frugality has a vast effect on Israeli households, but also has wider implications for equality. Families often find themselves having to put up hundreds and sometimes thousands of shekels for educational activities that were once free. Many households find the ever-rising rates of fees to be an impossible burden, and must compromise on their children's education.

An Israeli teacher using a touch-screen smart-board in a class room during a lesson at the Janusz Korczak school in Jerusalem. May 17, 2011.(Photo by Kobi Gideon / Flash90)

Budget constraints have caused schools in Israel to outsource educational classes and activities to private sources branding them as "extracurricular." These include private tutoring and additional classes, but often also integral school activities such as field trips. Even though Israel has a relatively small private education system, underfunding has de facto created a tier-based system when students from richer backgrounds enjoy substantially higher opportunities for academic success.

An empty classroom in Jerusalem (Yonatan Zendil / פלאש90)

Public spending hasn’t increased enough

Many governments around the world have adopted an ultra-conservative ideology when it comes to public spending, and Israel is no exception. But when it comes to education funding, Israel is definitely one of the worst.

Children attend orientation to first grade at Paula Ben Gurion elementary school in Jerusalem on August 30, 2015. (Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash 90).

Government funding of education is Israel is one of the lowest among OECD countries and has been decreasing for years. In 2013 approximately 22 percent of education funding came from private sources compared to the 15 percent OECD average. Today, private funding has risen to a quarter of all money spent on education in Israel.

This wasn’t always the case, however. The Free Compulsory Education Act, signed into law in 1948, officially offers all Israeli children free, government funded education up to the age of 18. But in recent years consecutive governments have been reluctant to increase education spending to accommodate for a growing population. This means that even as the education budget has nominally grown in recent years, the amount spent on the average student has been steadily decreasing.

Public Funding of Educational Institutions in 2016 (Graphics: Idea)

The lack of funding has caused many Israeli schools to charge additional fees from students for classes and activities that were once free. As judge Itzhak Amit said this month: "Compulsory education is offered free of charge to all Israeli students, but this does not mean that education is free. Parents also have the ability to purchase additional education services, and that's where inequality starts".

This means that families face ever growing expenses for even the most basic education, which is a huge impetus toward education and opportunity inequalities. In these cases richer parents can afford to fund a better education for their children. According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, the highest earning parents spent an average of 1,120 NIS on additional education expenses in 2017, whereas the average lowest income families spent only 280 NIS.

Public spending per student in OECD countries (Graphics: Idea)

A question of government policy

Recent years have seen quite a few attempts to tackle education inequality by parents, without much success. This month courts ruled against a petition by parents to ban all extra education fees. The judge explained his decision by saying that "all questions of inequality caused by extra payments must be solved by a change of government policy in regards to funding."

The group of parents claimed before the court that increased parent contributions were a violation of the free education law, and demanded a complete ban on extra payments. The court eventually rejected the claim, explaining that without a change in government funding policy, the banning of outsourced classes would lower the overall level of education in Israel. "The petition seeks a lowering of educational standards in an attempt to implement the idea of equality. But the question of increasing equality without impairing the quality of overall education is entirely a question of government funding" said Judge Itzhak Amit, who oversaw the case.

A Mother and her daughters walking to school (Yosi Zamir / פלאש90).

The ruling has been quite controversial. Some activists expressed disappointment in the court, having hoped that a ruling against private funding would pressure the government to increase spending. "This is a very unfortunate decision" said Tomer Smarkandi, head of the Aisaf fund which deals with inequality in the education system. "The decision will deepen the already existing inequality. If education is to be free for all children equally, the government should fund the system in its entirety. Underfunding causes inequality, which leads to unequal opportunities later in life."

"The Israeli government is privatizing the education system, and blocking many disadvantaged children from access to equal opportunities" said Pitchy Dubiner, who led one of the petitions last year. "This has been happening since 1989 and today parents often have to pay thousands of shekels for private services that were once completely free. Those who are hurt the most are poorer families, of course."

But for parents and students there is little hope of raising support in the political sphere. Almost all political parties, and especially those who are likely to form the next government this month, reject a substantial increase in government funding of education. In order to reach even the average OECD spending rates per student, the government would have to dramatically increase funding over several years- something that governments over the past decades have been reluctant to do.