Education Minister Naftali Bennett Thursday announced a plan to gradually reduce overcrowding in classrooms over the next five years.
At the end of this period, according to the plan, elementary school classes will contain no more than 34 pupils in wealthy communities, 33 in middle-class communities and 32 in poor communities.
The plan, which comes after a lengthy battle waged by local parents’ associations, is expected to cost about 500 million shekels ($130 million).
Each year, another grade will be added to the program. Thus the reduction in class size will apply immediately to students entering first grade in September, but won’t apply to students who are already in school.
“Starting this coming [school] year, we’ll begin a reform that will end in Israeli classrooms having no more than 34 students per class, and in poorer communities, no more than 32 students per class,” Bennett said. “This is a rolling program in which each year, another grade will be added to the small-class reform, such that within five years all Israeli elementary school students, from grades one through six, will study in small classes. ‘There’s room for everyone’ isn’t just a statement of values – as of today, it will be reality.”
Nevertheless, it will be a challenge for the ministry to implement the reform on such short notice, given that classroom assignments for the academic year that opens in September have already been finalized. A study conducted by the ministry found that to apply the reform to first-graders alone, 300 additional classrooms will be needed nationwide.
This means improvisations will be needed – for instance, converting laboratories into new classrooms. Moreover, it means that many teachers who hadn’t planned to be responsible for a class this year will have to take one on.
Even so, the ministry believes all this is doable if individual schools are willing to make the effort.
The plan unveiled yesterday doesn’t completely meet the demands of the parents’ associations. They sought a nationwide ceiling of 32 students per class, as called for in a cabinet decision dating from 2008 that was never implemented, and even held several strikes last year in support of this demand.
Yesterday morning, the parents’ associations petitioned the High Court of Justice against the failure to implement that cabinet decision. About six weeks ago, they had asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to order an investigation into all education ministers since 2008 – Yuli Tamir, Gideon Sa’ar and Piron – and all their ministry directors general, charging that these officials had diverted funds allocated for reducing class sizes to other purposes. Since Weinstein declined to do so, they petitioned the court instead.
Bennett also decided to continue a pilot program started by his predecessor, Shay Piron, under which student teachers will work alongside veteran ones in 1,000 schools three days a week. This is to reduce the student-teacher ratio and allow teachers to give each student more individual attention. But it is also designed to improve teacher training by giving student teachers hands-on experience under the guidance of an experienced teacher.