What Education Costs Us

04/03/2008 02:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Poor kids get worse educations and graduate from high school at lower rates than rich kids. That's bad. What could be worse? In Israel, what's worse is that, according to the Bank of Israel's annual report (not yet available on line, but here's a report by Or Kashti in Israel's respected daily newspaper, Ha'aretz) says that the education gap has remained virtually the same since 1992. We've made no progress at all.

Israel's education troubles are not all that different from those of many American cities. But it's interesting to note that one of the problems is a weird kind of privatization that has resulted from the state's retreat from providing full educational services. From the Ha'aretz article:

The study found that in the 2004-05 academic year, the proportion of students who earned a bagrut (matriculation) certificate was 25.5 percentage points higher in the two highest socioeconomic deciles than in the two lowest deciles. That is almost identical to the gap recorded in 1992-93 - 25.3 percentage points

There are a lot of reasons for the failure of the People of the Book to produce a decent school system here--low teacher salaries, bloated bureaucracy, party politics--but the Bank of Israel points out a major reason why the gap persists, as Kashti tells us:

The gap is due in large part to the fact that wealthier families can and do spend considerable sums of money on private education to supplement what their children receive from the public school system, the report said. "Today, every 10 percent increase in family income raises the percentage of [students who] matriculate by an average of some 0.4 percentage points...."

For me, that strikes close to home. In 2007, my middle-class family spent a full 12 percent of its combined income on education--about 40 percent of that on high school tuition and 60 percent on private tutoring. That's 60 percent above our mortgage payments, more than our entire grocery bill for the year. It was the single largest item in our budget. Excuse me, the second largest--the largest outlay went to taxes, in exchange for which the government, by law, is supposed to provide us with free education through twelfth grade.

Actually, our educational outlays have declined over the last few years, as the two oldest children completed high school. Imagine what I was paying when I had four children in the system.

By law, high schools aren't supposed to charge tuition, but parents pay gladly because without these extra sums the schools would be able to offer only the bare-bones program that the state pays for. This under-the-table system has two negative consequences. First, kids grow up observing close up that the way things get done in this country is by the exchange of cash under the table (see yesterday's conviction of a former cabinet minister on bribery charges, just the latest in a long string of such scandals). Second, since the payments are technically illegal, the schools and paying parents have no means of enforcing them. So there are lots of freeloaders who get the benefits and don't pay.

Why do I need to spend so much on private tutors for my kids? My eleventh-grade son and ninth-grade daughter are bright and talented, but they have learning disabilities. We've discovered over the years that most Israeli schools and educators have no real knowledge of how to teach such kids. There is a lot of good will but little training. And the budgets available for providing such kids with the small groups and individual attention they need are minuscule.

The money is well-spent. My eleventh-grade son is on his way to completing his high school graduation exams successfully. He's motivated, happy, and a hard worker.

But at the end of each month, when I write out the checks to his four private teachers, I am painfully aware of how lucky my kids are. A short walk away from our house are public housing projects where parents struggle to feed their kids. They can't possibly afford the tuition and private tutoring costs we incur. And in those housing projects, in Jerusalem, in other cities, in the development towns, live thousands of kids with learning disabilities whose lives are going to waste.

These kids won't earn a high school graduation certificate; as a result they won't go to college; as a result of that, they will work at low-paying jobs; as a result of that the education gap fifteen years from now will be as large as it is today.

Israel's experience is a warning for American school systems. Don't let the government out of education!

(Cross-posted, with some revisions, from