JERUSALEM, Sept. 1 (Xinhua) -- Ahead of the new school year's start on Thursday, Israeli parents had been on edge amid a threat by the teachers to go on strike over their pay dispute with the government.
The last-minute agreement reached on Wednesday after the 11-hour overnight talks averted the teachers' strike, so nearly 2.5 million Israeli students and 218,000 education workers began the regular 2022-2023 school year as scheduled.
New teachers will be paid 9,000 new shekels (2,675 U.S. dollars) with a rise to 10,000 new shekels after three years in the education system. More experienced ones will have their salary raised to 19,000 new shekels. Bonuses of 400-1000 new shekels will be offered for those with exemplary performances, according to the agreement.
"The school year will open tomorrow with a stronger and higher-quality education system," said Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday.
"After many months of back and forth, we succeeded in bringing deep changes that have yet to be seen in the Israeli education system," he noted.
For weeks before the agreement was reached, the Teachers' Union had threatened not to start the school year on time if their demands were not met. The Education Ministry announced during the summer break that there would be 5,600 teacher positions unfilled.
"After a long struggle, we succeeded in bringing real good news to educators, protecting their work conditions and improving their salaries for the better of all the education system," said Teacher's Union Secretary-General Yaffa Ben-David.
Avrum Tomer, an Israeli education policy researcher at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a think tank, attributed the education crisis in Israel to the teachers' low pay and crowded classrooms.
He voiced his concern that too many of the best people in the education system are quitting their jobs.
The annual OECD report named "2021 Education at a Glance" found that the classrooms in Israel are among the most crowded in the OECD countries, with Israel ranked 35 out of 38, and Israeli teachers are paid less than average in comparison to other OECD countries.
Before the Wednesday agreement, starting salaries for new Israeli teachers were almost as low as the minimum wage in general nationwide.
On paper, a new Israeli teacher earns 9,600 new shekels a month, but in practice, their average monthly pay is reportedly only 5,600 new shekels. This April, the teachers' minimum wage in Israel was set at 5,400 new shekels.
In May, Israel witnessed one of its largest teacher protests in the country's history. More than 20,000 teachers took to the streets in Tel Aviv, chanting slogans such as "How can we put students first, if we put teachers last?"
"Everyone agrees that the education system in Israel is in deep crisis and has been for a while. Each new day brings with it the publication of depressing data on rising inequality in education, poor academic attainment, and, particularly, the lack of high-quality teachers," said Tammy Hoffman, an education observer.
Ironically, in contrast with the worse-off situation of teachers, Israel's expenditure per student from primary to tertiary education between 2012 and 2018 grew at an average annual rate of 3.6 percent, much higher than the average of 1.6 percent in the OECD countries, according to the same OECD report.
The report also shows that, among OECD countries, Israel spent the third highest proportion of its GDP on primary to tertiary educational institutions. In 2018, Israel spent on average 6.2 percent of GDP on educational institutions, which was 1.4 percentage points higher than the OECD average.
But the education situation in Israel befuddles many: despite relatively high spending on education compared with other OECD countries, Israeli students test less impressively against their peers in other countries in critical skills.
The latest results of the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is conducted every two years, found that the performance of Israeli students is depressing: 15-year-old Israeli students scored the 37th in reading, 41st in math, and 42nd in science skills, all at the bottom of the developed countries.
"Ultra-Orthodox students aren't tested at all. If they had been, the overall scores would have been much lower, since Haredi schools don't for the most part teach non-religious subjects," wrote David Rosenbergan in his opinion piece published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. ■