In the chorus of critique and praise for the Dovrat Commission's plan for educational reforms, one absence is deafening. The plan, intended to create a national education system based on "egalitarian, universal criteria," lacks the necessary mechanisms to meet the needs of the largest, most disadvantaged group of Israeli children. The mainstream press's failure to emphasize this flaw suggests how deep the divide between Israel's Arab and Jewish citizens has become. It is a divide that Dovrat risks widening.
According to official data, on average Palestinian Arab children, who make up
over a quarter of all school-age children, receive significantly less government funding and services than Jewish children: less money per child, fewer teaching hours, and far fewer facilities and educational opportunities. Arab schools are overcrowded, understaffed, and sometimes unavailable. Even after over a decade of only partly implemented plans to address gaps between Arab and Jewish education, on average Arab classes were four students larger than average Jewish classes in 2004-2005, and five students larger at the primary level. The gaps are starkest at the kindergarten level.
These outcomes are a direct result of policy decisions by Ministry of Education officials to allocate core education funding unequally, as demonstrated in Human Rights Watch's report, Second Class: Discrimination against Palestinian Arab Children in Israel's Schools. The problem is that Dovrat doesn't directly address the factors that facilitate these discriminatory policies. It continues to rely on criteria that are weighted against Palestinian Arab children, and it lacks effective mechanisms to ensure that the Ministry does not discriminate in implementing Dovrat's other reforms. The Ministry's decision to include only one Arab town, Shfar'am, among the twelve local authorities chosen to begin implementing the reforms, suggests that even under the Dovrat plan Ministry foot-dragging and discriminatory use of discretionary authority will continue to be powerful obstacles to ensuring equality in education.
Discriminatory criteria and foot-dragging are not the only obstacles. Dovrat and the Ministry of Education have committed themselves to implementing these reforms without significantly expanding spending or reallocating sums from Jewish education to Arab education sufficient to equalize per capita spending. Past studies show that overcoming the cumulative effect of generations of policies placing Palestinian Arab children at an educational disadvantage will require major increases in funding well beyond those currently budgeted.
Israeli children don't have time to wait for incremental change. Officials need to acknowledge that discrimination against Palestinian Arab citizens has been, and continues to be, a major social and political problem in Israel's education system. They should immediately implement a clear, written policy of equality that explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, or gender, and that policy should require all Ministry of Education programs and funds to be allocated to all schools, Jewish and Arab, on the basis of non-discriminatory criteria. Where appropriate, it should also seek to correct past discrimination. Palestinian Arabs should be included in all aspects of the decision-making process, particularly at the highest levels, of education policies and resources, including curricula development.
These policies should be supported by concrete actions by the Knesset and Israeli courts. In particular, the Knesset should amend the Compulsory Education Law and the Pupils' Rights Law to prohibit discrimination by the national government, as well as by local education authorities and institutions. It should also fully fund the annual Budget Law's current plans to address inadequacies in Arab education and should allocate additional funding to close the gaps between Jewish and Arab education in all areas, including the construction and maintenance of school buildings, libraries, laboratories, and recreation facilities; in the availability of kindergartens, vocational education, counseling, special education, and teacher training; and in the development of curricula. The Israeli courts should reaffirm the urgency of these reforms by obligating the government to fulfill the right to education for all of its citizens, without discrimination.