East Jerusalem students being left behind, group charges

City Hall denies it has neglected to implement a 2011 Supreme Court decision to equate school infrastructure across Jerusalem

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Young Arab students in class at an elementary school in the Arab neighborhood of Umm Tuba in East Jerusalem, December 13, 2011 (Flash90/Kobi Gideon)
Young Arab students in class at an elementary school in the Arab neighborhood of Umm Tuba in East Jerusalem, December 13, 2011 (Flash90/Kobi Gideon)

Israeli authorities have failed in their obligation to provide a sufficient number of classrooms for residents of East Jerusalem and curb high dropout rates, two Israeli human rights organizations charge in a new report to be published Monday.

The municipality rejected the claims.

Some 2,200 classrooms are missing in East Jerusalem’s official school system to fulfill the needs of residents, claims the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Ir Amim — an NGO dealing with equitable planning for Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem — in a new report titled “The failing East Jerusalem education system,” to be published September 2.

According to the report, only 150 classrooms have been built during the tenure of Mayor Nir Barkat, which began in 2009, with 332 additional classrooms stuck in various stages of planning.

With Arab students constituting one-third of Jerusalem’s total student population, that is just a drop in the bucket, claimed Ronit Sela, who directs ACRI’s East Jerusalem project.

“To solve the problem, Israeli authorities will need to put in a much greater effort than they have so far,” Sela told The Times of Israel. “The mayor shows interest in the issue and hosts meetings on school dropout in City Hall, but these things cost money. The problem won’t just go away.”

Following a decade of litigation, in 2011 ACRI won a landmark victory in Israel’s Supreme Court against the municipality and the Ministry of Education, forcing them to either build the missing classrooms by 2016, or refund parents for tuition paid to unofficial schools which have so far offered the alternative. Under Israeli law, the court reasoned, the government must provide free and accessible schools to all of its citizens and residents.

But at the turtle’s pace City Hall has been working, the 2016 objective for closing the gap will never be met, claimed the organizations.

Oshrat Maimon, director of policy advocacy at Ir Amim, hinted that City Hall’s negligence was the result of the mayor’s need to cater to his right-wing power base.

“We’re very close to the October municipal elections. It is regrettable that, instead of attending to the existing gaps, the candidates for mayor choose to devote their energy and resources to satisfying the demands of the nationalist right in Jerusalem,” stated Maimon in a press release issued Sunday. “While parents in West Jerusalem are excited about their children’s first day in school, a few meters away parents in East Jerusalem don’t know if there will even be a place in school for their children.”

A spokesman for Jerusalem’s municipality charged that the new report was “distorted and disconnected from reality.” In fact, the spokesman claimed in a written comment sent to the Times of Israel, City Hall under Barkat has invested an unprecedented NIS 400 million ($110 million) in “planning and constructing” 400 new classrooms. This year, the municipality will inaugurate 121 new classrooms, and 250 additional ones are in various stages of planning.

“It is unfortunate that Ir Amim chooses every year to recycle the same distorted report, which is detached from reality, in a bid to receive a bit of media coverage,” read the municipality’s comment. “It disregards the deep and broad measures taken by the municipality to reduce the gaps created over the past 40 years in the fields of education, infrastructure, construction and welfare.”

Sela admitted that Barkat inherited “a heavy load” in East Jerusalem, the result of decades of systematic neglect by City Hall and the Education Ministry. She argued, however, that excusing the problem through East Jerusalem’s scarcity of land cannot continue.

“It simply makes no sense that entire neighborhoods have no high school,” Sela said, adding that City Hall inflates the number of available classrooms by including rented classrooms located in converted apartment buildings, which are often not suitable to serve as schools.

A high dropout rate in East Jerusalem is another issue tackled by the report. Thirty-six percent of students in East Jerusalem do not complete 12th grade, and the dropout rate stands at 13 percent, dramatically higher than West Jerusalem’s dropout rate of only 1 percent.

The municipality, charges the report, has failed to implement dropout-prevention programs in 30 percent of East Jerusalem’s secondary schools (where most of the dropout occurs), and implements only one program in 44 percent of the schools.

City Hall, for its part, retorted that the issue is not news. It has been spearheading the fight against high school dropout, allocating NIS 1 million ($275,000) in the 2013 budget for tackling this issue alone. A new program will focus both on educational and behavioral elements contributing to high school dropout in East Jerusalem.

“The decision to invest in this issue, following years of neglect, is an unprecedented decision by Mayor Nir Barkat,” read the statement.

The Education Ministry and the head of Jerusalem’s education authority, which oversees the schools in East Jerusalem, declined to comment on the report.

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