Universal Education Insurance

Haim Watzman

Motti works out with me at the gym at the Jerusalem Pool. A cab driver by profession, he’s a bit younger than me and shares my exercise addiction; like me he has a teenage son who also works out at the gym. We work hard to stay healthy, and we both want our kids to succeed at school. What’s the connection?

Last night we managed to pry my niece away from her Birthright trip for a short visit with the family, and I called on Motti to drive us back to the hotel outside Jerusalem where her group is staying. It being the end of the school year, on the way back to the city, we chatted about our sons and their schoolwork.

“He doesn’t want to study,” Motti said half-mournfully, half-derisively about his tenth-grader. His son attends a secular public high school in the Katamonim neighborhood, a school that serves a large section of South Jerusalem that includes disadvantaged and poor neighborhoods as well as lower middle class areas.

I told him about my son’s learning disabilities, how he had not wanted to learn for many years, and how gratifying it is to see him now, learning, studying, and getting in the 90s on his high school graduation exams.

“How did that happen?” Motti asked.

“It needed a lot of patience,” I said. “But it’s also thanks to the fact that we found a high school called Dror where there were teachers who understood his issues and knew how to reach him, help him learn and succeed, and give him confidence. Beyond that, it’s also thanks to the fact that we’ve shelled out huge sums of money for private lessons given by teachers trained to teach kids with learning disabilities.”

“Private lessons?” Motti asked.

“I’ve got the figures here in my Palm Pilot. This year we spent NIS 15,000 [~ $4,500] on private lessons for my son.”

“Fifteen thousand! How can you manage that?!”

“And that’s in addition to the NIS 9,000 [~$2,700] we pay in tuition to his high school,” I noted.

“You pay tuition?” Motti is astounded. “Public schools aren’t supposed to charge tuition.”

“Of course not,” I answer. “But the basic curriculum that the government pays for is bare bones. It’s just not enough. So we pay to enable the school to offer more hours of instruction, have smaller classes, and more programs.”

From Motti’s brief description, it sounds like his son may have some of the same learning issues my son does. But with his cab driver’s income, he doesn’t have the money to even think about sending his kid to a school where parents pay for extra programming, much less to spend thousands of shekels on private lessons. The consequence: my son is succeeding, Motti’s may not. Because he’ll earn his high school diploma, my son will have a large range of options for further and higher education open to him when he completes his military service. Motti’s son, if he doesn’t get the help he needs to get his diploma, will be restricted to a much smaller range of vocational programs and professions.

Were either of our sons to get injured lifting weights, or doing anything else, they’d both enjoy equal medical coverage. Israel has universal public health care; we belong to different plans, but the differences are small. The costs are also relatively modest. That’s how health insurance works—by distributing risk over a large population, every citizen can pay a reasonable amount and the system can pay for the costs of catastrophic care. A privatize system would be unfair and would perpetuate existing social inequities.

Yet Israel doesn’t have universal education insurance. Motti’s son and my son don’t get equal educational services and catastrophic costs. Learning disabilities are the educational equivalent of, say, chronic asthma or kidney malfunction, and require large sums for treatment. When it comes to school, if you’ve got the money you can afford the treatment for your kids, and if you don’t have money, your kids stay sick.

Here’s an idea—why don’t we spread those costs over the entire population, so that no family will incur catastrophic costs when they discover that their kid needs special tutoring? We can call it “universal education insurance.”

If we had universal education insurance, Motti’s son would get the same opportunities my son will get. Children would realize their full potential, social inequities would be shattered rather than perpetuated, and ethnic barriers would fall away. Isn’t that worth—can I say it straight out—higher taxes?