All agree teachers' pay must rise, so why hasn't it?

Teachers demonstrating in Tel Aviv  credit: Shlomi Yosef
Teachers demonstrating in Tel Aviv credit: Shlomi Yosef

The question is not so much what teachers will get as what, if anything, they will give in return.

Schools and kindergartens closed early in Israel yesterday, and the teachers went to demonstrate in Tel Aviv as part of the protest led by Teachers Union secretary Yaffa Ben-David against what she calls "the disconnected stance of Ministry of Finance officials" in negotiations on teachers’ pay. On Sunday, Minister of Finance Avigdor Liberman anticipated the teachers’ action with a press conference at which he declared that there was no dispute that teachers’ pay should rise. The dispute is over what the teachers will give in return.

"It’s as though you would go into a shop and the shopkeeper would say ‘Give me NIS 100 and only after that will I tell you what you can buy for it,’" a senior Ministry of Finance official told "Globes" this week in connection with the negotiations with the teachers on a new pay agreement. The official was alluding to the teachers’ objections to discussing the demands that Liberman and his people presented to them, such as incentives for teachers according to excellence and not just length of service, giving more power to school principals, and switching annual leave days from the summer vacation to the Jewish holiday season in September/October, before concluding agreement on a pay rise.

For her part, Minister of Education Yifat Shasha-Biton has other claims. As far as she is concerned, the Ministry of Finance has been buying on credit at that imaginary shop for three years, ever since the previous pay agreement with the teachers expired in 2019. Now, the time has come to pay off the account before the Ministry of Finance continues shopping. "First of all, let the Budgets Division at the Ministry of Finance give the teachers what is due to them for what they have done and are doing," was Shasha-Biton’s response to Liberman’s demands. "Only afterwards will we agree to discuss more things that the teachers can give and the significance for them."

No preferential treatment for teachers

As in any complicated situation, both sides are right, and both are to some extent mistaken. The Ministry of Finance is right in saying that the signing of a new pay agreement, a once in two or three years event, is a golden opportunity to make improvements and to fix the ills of the education system, something that will be hard to do afterwards.

On the other hand, Liberman does not enter into every financial negotiation with prior demands. For example, one does not recall the minister of finance demanding that the IDF should become more financially efficient in exchange for promotion of the law raising the pensions of career army personnel, at an annual cost of about NIS 1.5 billion. Liberman, together with Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, pushed through that measure over the objections of the professionals at the Ministry of Finance.

The teachers don’t get that kind of preferential treatment. From the point of view of the Ministry of Finance, the agreement to be signed has special importance, in that it is the first in a series of significant pay agreements. To large extent, what the Ministry of Finance achieves in the agreement with the education system will determine the criteria for agreements with the doctors and the university lecturers and for the framework agreement with the Histadrut (General Federation of Labor in Israel).

Ministry of Finance Commissioner of Wages Kobi Bar-Nathan aspires to introduce mechanisms for differential incentives in practically every public sector pay agreement that he signs. If he overcomes the high hurdle of the Teachers Union backed by a favorable minister of education, and succeeds in making the ossified pay structure in the education system more flexible, Bar-Nathan will come to the subsequent negotiations in a strong opening position.

Furthermore, at the root of Shasha-Biton’s response to Liberman that "Ministry of Education policy is set exclusively by the minister who heads it" lies the eternal complaint of all government ministries that Ministry of Finance officials obstinately insist on their penny-pinching approach to running the country. And in the end, no parent would want reforms in the education system to be dictated unilaterally by economists and accountants alone.

"There’s no dispute over the need to raise teachers’ pay," Liberman himself said this week, "Teachers’ pay will rise, and so we’re surprised at the aggressive campaign in the media and at the action taken." The question is, by how much will teachers’ pay rise, and for which teachers will it rise more? The differential between starting salaries for teachers and salaries for veteran teachers in Israel is among the largest in the world. Pay rises only in accordance with length of service, and not according to excellence or discipline.

Liberman would not agree to state a number in connection with the new pay award. He argued that the framework for additional pay was dependent on the 2023 budget under preparation at the Ministry of Finance before being brought before the government for approval next month. The minister of education also tied the matter to the state budget, only from the other side, when she threatened to oppose approval of the budget unless the Ministry of Finance acceded to her demands.

Ben-David said recently that she was demanding a monthly starting salary for a teacher of NIS 10,000, and claimed that the Ministry of Finance offered her NIS 8,200. She said that she responded, "8200 is in the army" (referring to the signals intelligence unit), and raised the question of how computer science graduates and graduates in other scientific disciplines could be induced to teach in schools when they can earn a starting salary at least double that in technology companies and other jobs.

Why are so many teachers working part-time?

The Ministry of Finance would like to improve conditions, particularly for new teachers, in disciplines in which there are shortages: science, mathematics, and English. That kind of approach, taken for granted in the private sector, is considered almost taboo in the public sector. The Ministry of Finance also wants salary rises to be in shekel terms, and not as percentages of current salaries, in order to narrow the gap between new and veteran teachers.

The question how much a starting teacher earns is somewhat complicated. According to last year’s Wages Report, new teachers earned an average gross monthly salary of just NIS 4,870. The starting salary for a full-time post is NIS 7,800 monthly, but new teachers earn less because they are generally employed on a part-time basis.

The question arises, how is it that young teachers can’t obtain more than a part-time position, at a time when teachers’ organizations are constantly complaining that the shortage of teachers is so severe that it threatens the ability to open the new school year?

Here lie the half-truths in the campaigns of the Ministry of Finance and of the teachers’ organizations. First of all, the Ministry of Education has reported a jump of 49% in the number of applications from teachers for sabbatical years and leave without pay in the coming school year in comparison with the current year. The number of applications, from 7,300 teachers, is actually almost the same as the numbers in the years before the Covid-19 pandemic. The outbreak of the pandemic and the switch to home learning led to a temporary dip in applications for sabbaticals and unpaid leave.

All the same, why is the average scope of a job for a starting teacher 60%? Well, first of all, teachers of English, mathematics and sciences will probably have no problem in obtaining full-time jobs. Those who teach more niche subjects will find it more difficult. Teachers with whom we spoke said that many conversion courses for teachers were for arts and communications graduates, who go out into the education market and discover that they are not exactly what the schools need.

There is, however, also a hidden cause: teachers receive tenure after two years, at the scope of their jobs. That is, a teacher who has worked half-time for two years will receive tenure for a half-time position, and the scope of their job cannot be reduced, but only expanded. In addition, work in less than a one-third time position does not entitle a teacher to tenure. Because of that, Ministry of Finance sources claim, school principals avoid giving jobs with a high-percentage scope to new teachers in order not to have to award them tenure early.

The current campaign is being led by Ben-David’s Teachers Union, which mainly represents primary school and kindergarten teachers. This as opposed to the Teachers Association in Israel, led by Ran Erez, which represents high school teaching staff. Relations between Erez and the minister of education are tense, and they are at loggerheads over proposed reforms to the bagrut matriculation examinations. There is also a difference between the organizations in teacher recruitment needs. A mathematics graduate will have an advantage in teaching in a secondary school, whereas for an arithmetic teacher in a primary school the main qualification is that they should be a good educator.

It looks as though the prolonged negotiations between the teachers and the Ministry of Finance will, as usual, remain undecided until August 31, the day before the school year starts. The sanctions begun now are an opening shot in advance of the threat of a strike in the education system, after two hard years of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the price will mainly be paid by parents and children.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Ben-David has something to lose. If the government falls before a pay agreement is signed, who knows when the next opportunity will arise for teachers crying out for improvement in their inferior conditions to achieve at least some of their goals?

The Ministry of Finance stated in response: "The ministry is attentive to the needs of the education system and teaching staff. With the start of the negotiations, and all along the way, the negotiation teams have been working to put together a good agreement for the teachers, the pupils, the parents, and the school principals. The talks are proceeding all the time, in the hope of an agreement that will benefit all the teachers, especially teachers at the beginning of their careers, and that will facilitate mechanisms that will promote initiative, excellence, and leadership of change."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on May 31, 2022.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2022.

Teachers demonstrating in Tel Aviv  credit: Shlomi Yosef
Teachers demonstrating in Tel Aviv credit: Shlomi Yosef
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