Gideon Sa’ar has served as Israel’s education minister for the past two years. A member of the Likud Party, he placed second in the December 2008 party primaries, making him the second-most popular party member after its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sa’ar was first elected to the Knesset in 2003, where he has proposed bills to jail employers who fire pregnant women and to ban cosmetics testing on animals. During a visit here last week, he spoke to the American Friends of Likud and later to The Jewish Week on the state of education in the Jewish state.

Q: Prime Minister Netanyahu has announced that he intends to establish a fund to invest the state’s revenue from gas and oil into the educational system. Will this be on top of the slated 30 percent increase in the education budget over the next six years?

A.: The education budget calls for 7.5 billion shekels ($1.9 billion) within six years, and it is not connected to the gas issue. The gas [income] will be on top of that. I praise the prime minister for understanding and promoting the importance of investing in education at all levels — from kindergarten to higher education — as the most important factor for the future of the country.

This new income from gas is expected to be in about 10 years from now. It is important to have a vision like the prime minister, but it is not something we are going to have in the coming years.

A 2007 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that class sizes in Israel are among the largest in the world – 33 students on average in junior high as opposed to 24 in other Western nations, and 28 per class in elementary schools compared with 22 in other OECD countries. Has that changed?

We are investing today about 200 million shekels [$54 million] a year to reduce the number of students in the classroom, and we are doing it according to socio-economic factors — trying to do it more in poorer schools. But one must understand that Israel’s demography is totally different from other OECD countries. We have a lot of births and children — almost double the OECD countries — and of course it has an influence. We are one of the states in the OECD that has the largest class sizes; only Japan and South Korea have more than us.

That OECD study showed also that Israeli teachers earned about half the average global wage. What is the situation today?

It is changing. There has been an improvement by 26 percent in the salaries of teachers in primary schools. And just three weeks ago, we signed an agreement in principle with the second union of teachers — the high school teachers union. They have agreed to implement reforms that will change their working hours in schools and will improve the salaries of the teachers. Teachers in grade 10 to 12 will receive a 42 percent increase over six years. This is an important and significant change. The junior high grades were included in a previous reform called New Horizon, and now teachers in more than 150 junior high schools — representing about 25 percent — are earning more money.

The OECD study also reported that when Israeli students took the Program for International Student Assessment exams, they placed 39th and 40th in math and science, respectively, out of 57 participating nations. What has happened since then?

We haven’t had any international tests since this government was formed [two years ago]. We will have two of them in May and June. One includes math and science and the other includes mother tongue basic literacy.

We saw an improvement in mother-tongue literacy during the last test, but we did not see the improvement we needed in math and science. We saw only a little improvement and, of course, that was not enough. But we already see improvement in our internal national test in math and science in all segments of society, and I believe we will see improvement in the international exam.

We have increased hours of instruction in math and science, and we are training the teachers and working with success goals for them. In the previous decade we cut 250,000 hours of instruction in the school year. That was because we had difficult times during the second intifada and so we had to add more security and cut education. That influenced the number of hours [of instruction]. But in the last two years we added 100,000 hours of instruction in primary and high school — [adding the hours in instruction in] mother tongue, science and math. That was a 40 percent increase over what was cut during the previous decade.