Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Israel: Constitution, Government and Politics

Parent Control and Educational Choice:
Learning from the Israeli Experience

Daniel J. Elazar

Individual free choice is basic to pluralistic democratic societies. Historically, choice basically has been in the hands of parents who presumably guide the education of their children, or, alternatively, in the hands of the state which has committed itself to imposing a certain kind of education on the children of its citizens and residents. In the United States and other Western democracies, education initially was a responsibility shared by parents and community. The idea of the local school district in the U.S. in its original form was to enable families in a small community to come together to provide an educational framework for their children that would take the responsibilities of meeting the task of schooling from individual families and make them the shared tasks of the members of a small community usually rather homogeneous, who could hire someone to teach. While parents could no longer exercise their responsibilities for teaching their children at home, they were able to do so collectively in a unit small enough to maintain the norms that they wished to transmit as well as the more technical learning.

In time, the state stepped in first to set standards for these community schools and then when control of education at the state level passed to professionals, to consolidate the local school districts in the name of efficiency (that was its manifest reason, its latent reason was to strengthen the hands of the professional educators and eliminate parents from a significant role in the educational process), thereby eliminating the possibilities of choice that previously had been held by families individually and then retained by them through the small district.In recent years the Western world has shown an increasing desire to restore the possibilities of choice in education by offering its citizens a variety of educational options, allowing parents the opportunity to choose from among them. This tendency is strengthened by parallel moves toward decentralization and localism, which acknowledge that local residents best know their own needs and requirements in educational matters. In the United States, a major item on the public policy agenda is the search for ways to offer curricular choice to local communities and groups within them in a far more heterogeneous, not to say multi-cultural environment. Educational experts, departments of education, school boards and citizens have expressed a desire to find methods of introducing models of different curricula into the American school system. Despite the many social, political, and constitutional differences between the two countries, the Israeli experience in this area can serve as a valuable model. While seemingly a relatively homogeneous society, in fact, Israel has its own heterogeneity that reaches a level approximating the United States. This heterogeneity in Israel is ethnic, religious, and ideological. The Jewish Yishuv (settled community) in pre-state Israel consistently tried to develop a combination of parental, communal, and group choice that enabled parents to have a maximum amount of freedom in determining the direction of their children's education in light of the foregoing differences. While the early period of the state was one of centralization and consolidation, even then, a substantial amount of choice was built into the system. Since the mid-1970s, that system of choice has exploded to offer many new possibilities, all within the framework of the state educational system and with state support.

Four Dimensions/Sets of Demands on the Schools

The treatment of the educational issue of choice is not an easy one, in part because every educational system must respond to four sets of demands whose importance is given different weight by different segments of the body politic. The four sets of demands are civilizational, social, parental, and individual student. Each is represented by a specific referent. The basic demands of each can be presented as follows:

Civilizational Demands Social Demands Parental Demands Individual Student Demands
transmission of heritage good citizenship able to make a living happiness
transmission of culture productive worker perpetuate way of life self-expression
  up-to-date skills happiness able to make a living
 perpetuate civil society   able to fit in

1. Civilizational Demands/Tasks

The first task of any educational system is to transmit the heritage of the civilization it serves. This is true whether we are speaking of the transmission of the heritage of Western civilization in the schools of the United States or of Islamic civilization in the schools of Iran. This includes the transmission of the overall culture of the civilization and what are believed to be the treasures of its heritage.

2. Social Demands/Tasks

The social dimension of education has to do with the perpetuation of the civil society. It involves education for good citizenship, education to develop productive workers for the society with up-to-date skills, and education for social control.

3. Parental Demands/Tasks

The third dimension is the parental, that is to say, education in response to parental demands and expectations for their children. For example, parents want the educational system to teach their children to be able to make a living. They want the educational system to help them perpetuate their way of life and, at least in some vague way, they want the educational system to help their children in the pursuit of happiness.

4. Individual Student Demands/Tasks

Finally, there is the individual dimension, what the individual students expect from the educational system. Students seek happiness, both in the immediate sense of a sufficient happiness within the school system and assistance in the pursuit of happiness beyond their formal education. Students also seek self-expression, an individual goal which is now widely accepted by the society. Finally, students seek education for adjustment or the ability to fit in.

Every educational system must respond in some measure to all of these demands, but the ordering and emphasis is different from polity to polity. In their earliest days, for example, the Jewish schools of Eretz Israel emphasized the civilizational and social demands, particularly in their religious or ideological forms, and concerned themselves with the parental and individual demands only to the extent that the latter two coincided with the first two. Over time, the social and parental demands grew at the expense of the civilizational, transmitting the heritage became less important than learning how to be good citizens and make a living.

In some quarters in Israel, there are efforts underway today to radically shift the emphasis in education to the individual student. As American progressive educators used to say, "We teach children, not subjects." Individual happiness and self-expression are given more importance as goals of the educational system. The parental dimension is important insofar as it conforms to the emphasis on the individual. If this were to happen, the social and civilizational goals would be reduced in importance, almost by definition. In other quarters, the reverse trend is evident -- a greater desire to return to the pattern of earlier times, to emphasize the religious and ideological dimensions of education. Most recently, the "parental choice" movement has, perforce, emphasized parental goals in the education of their children. Through all of this runs the great question of how will the schools accomplish the more technical tasks of teaching literacy and numeracy -- the basic skills that all students are expected to acquire in their years of schooling.

Educators and Others as Mediating Forces

All the foregoing demands find expression in the educational system through the mediation of the professional educators responsible for the day-to-day working of the system, ranging from classroom teachers to principals to the system's most senior professionals. In every age, teachers have been critical and active mediating elements between educational goals and those being taught. But since the rise of education as a profession, the role of teachers and other educators has grown exponentially. In some respects educators' goals also are derived from the foregoing four-fold division. Normally their priorities are expected to be the same as those who employ them, but even in such cases they have much discretion in matters of "what" and "how", that is to say, subject matter and methodology. In some cases, professional educators, firmly convinced that they know better, have a different set of priorities from those who employ them, and, in a sense seek to reeducate their employers as well as to educate their students in their way.

While educators are the principal mediating factors in the foregoing model, there are others as well: ministries or departments of education and their political leadership, school boards where they exist, ideological and religious movements that seek to impose their will on the schools, and perhaps others are of varying importance as mediating factors, depending on their influence within the overall system.

Israeli society is very heterogeneous. While over 80 percent of its population is Jewish, nearly 20 percent are Arabs, Druse, Circassians, and other minorities. The Jewish population includes immigrants from more than 100 lands and their children, and while a common Israeli-Jewish culture is the proclaimed goal of all, the culturally pluralistic dimension remains very strong. In addition, the society includes numerous gradations of religious identification from fundamentalist to moderately traditional as well as a large secular component. All of these group identifications preceded the establishment of the state and existed when Israel's present school system was built. In the interwar years under the British mandate, the education of the Jewish population was not a state matter but technically "private." In fact it was in the hands of the Zionist movement. It was organized by "trends." Each ideological movement that was connected with the Zionist framework, either from within or alongside, maintained its own school system with the support of the Zionist authorities, usually connected to the municipal governments of the time. Thus, the kibbutzim had their own very progressive educational system which they used in their attempts to develop a new socialist Zionist human being. The socialist Zionists outside the kibbutzim had the Labour trend, of which the kibbutz schools were nominally a part. The urban bourgeois identified with non-socialist ideologies had the General Zionist trend under their auspices, while the Religious Zionists maintained schools within the Religious trend, which really had two wings, the Religious Zionist socialists and the Religious Zionist bourgeois. In addition, the ultra-Orthodox maintained their own network of schools outside of this formal framework but connected with it, especially for purposes of support. This extensive heterogeneity has presented special challenges to Israeli educational authorities.

At the time of the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, there was an immediate need to forge a national consciousness from among the many divergent immigrant groups. As part of this state-building process, the multifaceted pre-state educational system was replaced with a more unified system embodied in a State Education Law enacted in 1953. Even in it, the political and social realities required the Israeli system to weigh the needs of the divergent groups within its society, along with the needs of the state. Thus, officially the trends were abolished, but two state school systems were formally established -- the state general schools and the state religious schools. The state general schools more or less followed the Labour trend but which was in time overwhelmed by the more non-socialist approach of the old General Zionist trend. The Religious Zionist schools became the state religious schools. The ultra-Orthodox schools stayed outside of the system as "independent schools," but received state support; while the kibbutzim were allowed to maintain their own forms of education within the general state system. A separate subsystem was established for Arabic-speaking Israelis which allowed them to express their language, culture, and religion (Muslim, Druse, and Christian) within a subsystem that catered to that element of the population. This subsystem served Muslim and Christian Arabs, and other Arabic-speaking minorities such as Druse and Circassians.

Over the years, as national integration has proceeded apace, these diverse demands began to be accommodated, especially since the early 1980s. As a result, today the State of Israel supports what are in essence five separate trends in education: the state general schools; the state religious schools; the state Arabic schools; the kibbutz schools; and an independent school system for the ultra-religious, along with variants of the first two. Furthermore, each system is internally diverse. Within the general school system there are schools with additional studies in Jewish tradition (in the religious sense), community schools, experimental schools, and most recently, schools in the spirit of the Labor movement, schools emphasizing the arts, and schools with open classrooms. In the state religious schools, there are those which emphasize more intensive study of religious texts. In the Arabic school system there are separate Muslim, Druse, and Circassian schools. The Independent sector is further divided by Jewish religious sect. Thus there are at least fourteen options within the state or state-supported elementary school system itself aside from private options plus about the same number at the secondary level.

The way the system works is that at each school in the state, 75 percent of the hours of instruction must follow the standard government curriculum for its division. The remaining 25 percent can be designated by the principal from among a state-approved list of subject choices. The law also allows parents at each school to establish alternative educational programs within this variable 25 percent. They also have the opportunity to add additional instructional programs beyond the standard 100 percent.

Although the law has been in effect since 1953, only in recent years have parents taken advantage of its opportunities. This has combined with the recent desire of the Education Ministry to increase the autonomy of local schools in order to be more responsive to the needs of local communities.

While the law allows the parents to change the curriculum, nearly unilaterally, in practice this has led to extensive changes in the basic relationship between the parents, the school and its principal, resulting in greatly increased parental involvement at many levels. In general, the Israeli system, which on paper looks quite centralized, has built-in legal and customary safeguards which make each local school sovereign for all intents and purposes. It is a system worth studying by Americans now interested in moving in similar directions.

A preliminary classification of the present situation looks something like this:

  1. Nursery Schools

  2. Elementary Schools

    Priorities in Rank Order (estimated)

    State S,C,P,I
    - Tali P,S,C,I
    - Labour P,S,C,I
    - Open I,P,S,C
    - Kibbutz C,S,I,P
    - Community S,P,C,I
    State Religious C,S,P,I
    - Torah C,P,S,I
    - Kibbutz C,S,I,P
    State Arabic C,P,S,I
    - Druse C,S,P,I
    - Circassian C,P,S,I
    Independent C,P,S,I
    - Talmud Torah C,P,S,I
    Private C,P,I,S

  3. Secondary Schools
    State I,S,P,C
    - Tali 
    - Vocational 
    - Kibbutz 
    - Military S,C,I,P
    - Arts and Sciences I,P,S,C
    State Religious 
    - Yeshivot C,P,S,I
    - Kibbutz 
    State Arabic 
    - Independent C,P,S,I
    - High Schools C,S,P,I
    - Private

  4. Terciary

    - Bar-Ilan (1)
    - Ben Gurion (2)
    - Haifa (3)
    - Hebrew University of Jerusalem (4)
    - Open University (5)
    - Technion (6)
    - Tel Aviv (7)
    - Weitzman Institute (8)

    Teachers College
    - Labour

    State Religious
    State Arabic

    Independent (?)

    Vocational Colleges
    State Arabic

It must be emphasized that in the Israeli experience, we are dealing with an option for change to meet local demands. In fact, most schools within the system follow the standard curriculum. However, in the schools which have adopted this option, change appears to have resulted in the enrichment of the educational program, the increased involvement of parents in the education of their children, the closing of the gap between the values of parents and the school, increased understanding between parents and teachers, improved attitude of children towards the school, and improved relations between the school and the community.

Among the enormous differences between the United States and Israel are two of particular importance. The United States practices separation of church and state and that has come to be understood very strictly; and it insists upon integrated schools, also understood strictly. The Israeli system is based on a society that recognizes the primacy of separate peoples and religions and their right to choose appropriate educational options for themselves and their children with state support, and further, it recognizes the right of different groupings within each ethno-religious group to do the same. Thus the Israeli system constitutionally provides government supported education for a variety of purposes that would be rejected as unconstitutional in the United States, not only with regard to ethnicity and religion but with regard to separating males and females for learning purposes within the schools, which some school systems favor, and between adherents of different religions or no religion at all.

Despite the differences in the Israeli and American educational school systems, we believe that the Israeli model for developing different curricula has much to offer those who are seeking to reinvigorate the American educational system. The great heterogeneity of Israeli society, as well as the particular goals the Israeli model seeks to achieve, closely parallel the American experience and should, therefore, be uniquely suitable for practical application in the United States.

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