Funding bias suspected
The strictly Orthodox Shas has become the third biggest political party in Israel in only 15 years. It appeals to poor Sephardi Jews - originating from north Africa and the Middle East - and its pivotal position in successive narrow coalition governments has given it disproportionate influence.
Shas attracts children to its Source of Torah Educational Network of kindergartens and schools, offering parents incentives such as low fees, hot lunches, and long days. Pupils get a diet of religious Orthodoxy, although subjects such as technology and foreign languages are being introduced in response to parental pressure and a realisation that children need the tools to work.
Estimates of how many pupil learn in Network institutions range from 30,000-50,000. The education ministry, which funds Network schools, but grants them huge autonomy, could not give the full figures.
Shas politicians claim that their institutions receive less funding than state secular and state religious schools. But a new report from the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies suggests that the opposite is true.
Varda Shiffer, former head of education within the State Comptroller's office, found that in 1997 Network elementary schools received over 10 per cent more education ministry funding per pupil teaching hour than state schools. They had an average of 23.2 pupils per class, compared with 29 in state schools, and a PTR of 12.8:1, compared with 19.1:1. And they studied 7.6 hours per day, on average, compared with 6.2 .
Ms Shiffer told The TES that the education ministry bases funding on pupil numbers. "In state schools, the numbers are formally registered and known. With Network schools, the argument is political. Shas joins governments because of its educational system, and governments accept Network figures, without pressing them too hard, because they don't want to endanger their coalitions. "
A Network spokesman dismissed the report as "pure invention".