But instead of actually doing this
simple calculation mandated by their own logical argument and making the
expenditure-output ratio comparable with other countries, the supporters of
budget increases abandon these numbers in favor of a new set of numbers: education
expenditure per pupil. While an
international comparison of spending per pupil might seem more intuitive and
correct, it too is based on an inaccurate comparison. The bulk of education spending in Israel and
abroad is on salaries, and as one might suspect, salaries are higher in wealthy
countries and lower in poor countries.
Therefore, it is inaccurate to compare
education expenditures per pupil in Israel to a group of wealthier countries –
as the Education Ministry has done for years – and demand an equalization of
budgets without first normalizing spending per pupil by the countries’ living
standards. Once the expenditure per
pupil is discounted by GDP per capita (the common measure for living standards),
the relative expenditure picture changes completely – and becomes identical to
the earlier normalization of the expenditure-output ratio. This is not a coincidental outcome since both
calculations are mathematically identical.
The main differences of opinion
regarding education spending are based on a mistake made by those who do not
understand the equivalence of the two calculations – the calculation that they
implicitely support (normalization of the education-output ratio by the pupils-population
ratio) and the calculation that they expicitely oppose (normalization of the
expenditure per pupil by output per capita).
However, both routes lead to the same outcome – that there is no lack of
money in Israel’s education system.
We spend more on primary education
than the Western average. That said, the
many budget cuts in recent years have effectively eliminated the spending gap
in secondary education. For the first
time since I began to make comparisons in 1999, there are no longer signs of
excess spending on secondary education in Israel – though it is also possible
to see that there is no lack of funds for this system either.
Additional numbers in the graph show
that despite spending levels that are similar (in secondary education) or high (in
primary education), teachers’ salaries in both systems are very low in Israel, even
after they are normalized by living standards.
How can this be? Where is the
The first possible explanation: large
education budgets do not reach teachers but are instead channeled in alterative
directions that advance education. In
light of the dismal performance of Israeli pupils in comparison with other
countries, it should be clear that if this is indeed the explanation, then –
contrary to claims made by the Education Minister – the problem is not a lack
of funds but the wasteful use of them.
The second possible explanation: the
large education budgets do indeed reach the teachers, but it is possible that
the salary data that Israel passes along to the OECD is not comparable to the
foreign data. In other words, there is
the “conventional” salary in Israel and then there are the back channels for
providing additional monetary compensation.
The implication of this explanation would be that the situation of
Israel’s teachers looks much worse than it actually is.
However, if the compensation measure
across countries is nonetheless identical and comparable, then the graph
indicates the possibility of a third explanation: too many teachers are sharing
one budget pie that might be big, but is still not large enough to provide
decent compensation for each teacher.
If it turns out that in order to pay
each teacher more, there will be a need to cut the size of the workforce – that
would be my guess – then this does not imply that we need to charge ahead full
speed down the layoff path as the previous education minister, Limor Livnat, contended. Since roughly 4,000-6,000 teachers leave the
system each year (the exact number depends on who you ask), then in 5 years
time, natural evolution will lead to the cumultative exit of about 25,000
teachers. When the school day will be
lengthened, the school week shortened, and additional school days will be added
to the annual calendar, these major changes in work conditions will provide an
impetus for many additional teachers to want to leave of their own volition, on
condition that they receive sufficient compensation for doing so.
This doesn’t mean that that there
won’t be confrontations and struggles with the teachers regarding the size of
the retirement packages, but it will be an argument at a completely different
level than what took place here during the past two years. It is the only way to justify the requisite
additional funding for successfuly initiating a substantial reduction in the
number of teachers.
When education minister Tamir demands
additional budgets without specifying where she stands with regard to each of
the three alternatives detailed above, the implication is that she has yet to
internalize that the problem in Israel’s education system is not a lack of
funds but the inadequate utilization of them.
This does not mean that no additional money will be required to enact
reforms. Additional funds will
definitely be needed.
But before asking for more money, the
new education minister must first identify the actual reasons that led the
system to produce pupils with such low levels of achievements, teachers with
such low salaries, and all this with education budgets that did not fall below
those of most western countries. She
needs to provide a detailed and coherent explanation of the primary failures
together with actual solutions for dealing with the root problems of the
education system. Only then will it be
possible to justify a temporary budgetary increase to finance educational
reform in Israel.