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Jewish World Review July 8, 2002 / 28 Tamuz, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Not the Sum of Our Fears

Court's school-choice decision opens the door to reform, not the end of religious liberty | Within hours of the U.S. Supreme Court's June 27 landmark decision on vouchers, most of the organized Jewish world responded to the ruling in unison:

"A constitutional counter-revolution," screamed the American Jewish Congress.

The court took "a battering ram to the constitutionally mandated wall of separation between church and state," shrieked the American Jewish Committee in its press re-lease.

The Anti-Defamation League wailed that the ruling was "a step backwards for religious liberty."

Since all three national Jewish defense groups agree, this must mean that the constitutional sky is falling, and that American Jews are in real danger, shouldn''t it?

Wrong. The high court's decision was nothing of the kind.


In fact, far from mourning the court's step, we should - if we were truly serious about wanting to help the disadvantaged, as well as promote Jewish education - be encouraged about the court majority's sensible interpretation of the First Amendment.

The court case in question, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, challenged the constitutionality of a Cleveland program that permitted parents of public-school children to use tuition aid from the state to enable their children to attend private schools. The sticking point is that the legislation allowed the parents to use these state "scholarships" to choose not just other public or private schools, but religious ones as well. But the 5-4 majority clearly ruled that "because the program was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public-school system," it served a a "valid secular purpose"and was not a violation of the First Amendment.

Most significant to the majority was the fact that the program gave the parents "a true private choice" for educating their children.

Opposition to the ruling from mainstream liberal Jewish groups stems from the historic fears the Jewish community has of allowing religion into the public square of American life. On some issues, such as the mandating of sectarian prayers in public school, the "separationists" were right. The state has no business imposing one religion on everyone else.

But though the courts have at times veered toward a rigid ideological stand on separation (as evidenced by the remarkably dumb deletion of the words "under G-d" from the Pledge of Allegiance by a federal appeals court in California last week), the U.S. Supreme Court, in its recent decision, has brought us back to a more rational understanding of the Constitution. The founders forbade the creation of an established religion, but they did not grant Americans freedom from religion.

And though the Jewish community should never lower its guard against anti-Semitism, there is nothing for us to fear in vouchers. The notion of a public square where religion is unwelcome or a "wall of separation" that is absolute, rather than of varying heights, is not only not in the Constitution, it's not a healthy environment for any people of faith, including Jews.

There are valid Jewish reasons to be encouraged about choice.

After all, the potential is there, should voucher plans be adopted, for these schemes to aid the desire of poor and middle-class parents for a Jewish day-school education, which studies have proven is the community's best investment in the future.

Voucher opponents insist that Jewish schools should be paid for by the Jewish community, not the government. This argument might have more validity if these same groups were supporting a reordering of Jewish priorities to allocate funds to lower the exorbitant tuition costs for day schools.

But they are not, and the push for a Jewish-education safety net to make day schools affordable for all is currently dead in the water. Many of these groups, in fact, oppose the already widely accepted government subsidies for buses, books and computers for these schools. Thus, platitudes aside, if it were up to them, most Jewish day schools would already be closed by bankruptcy.

But the most compelling reasons for supporting voucher initiatives have nothing to do with Jewish schools or interests. It is about American Jewry's continued insistence that a commitment to social justice is at the core of our faith and our lives.

In spite of the troubled state of public education in this country, the educational establishment's resistance to reform is fanatical. Programs that enable parents to choose schools outside of the public system have been subjected to a nonstop barrage of scare tactics. Voucher programs will, we are told by the teachers' unions and the liberal Jewish organizational world, destroy public education, divide the nation into warring camps, empower extremists and undermine the civic fabric of American life.

Such charges are politically inspired nonsense.


It was the normally liberal editorial page of The Washington Post on June 28 that best summed up the reality of the situation. "The dangers of vouchers are hypothetical ones at this stage," it wrote. "The crisis in education is real. And the court should not be insisting that the only lawful policies are the ones that have already failed."

Concentrating all of our efforts on the public schools violates the age-old dictum that warns of the folly of reinforcing failure. Parents - especially those in the mostly minority school districts where public education is a public disaster - are lining up for any chance to give their kids an escape route from bad education. What gives the separationist extremists in the Jewish organizational world the right to stand at the schoolhouse door, denying them this elemental right of choice that so many of us have simply because of higher income and social status?

Minorities want to know why we keep telling them that if their kids aren't kept in these lousy schools, our rights will be threatened. Our rights? What about their children's right to a decent education?

The argument that school choice will also undermine "pluralistic democracy," as was stated by Hadassah in its press release against the court's ruling, is similarly wrong-headed.

After all, who do we think is really doing the best job of teaching American kids the sort of American values we once called "civics"- the public system, or the parochial and private schools? It is separationist extremism and not giving parents a choice in education that has the potential to divide our society.

The only thing that will jolt the public system into action is competition. If tax dollars follow the children out the door, rest assured, the public schools will at last find the will to compete for them.

Vouchers are not a panacea for urban education, any more than they will magically make Jewish continuity problems disappear. The problem with discussing this issue is that there are many variants of the voucher idea in play. Some are good, others not. Some don't provide enough money to make a difference. Nonetheless, well-crafted choice plans can give kids a chance to succeed. They are both constitutional and good public policy.

The bottom line of this debate is simple: If we truly believe the children of minority parents in the inner cities are made in the image of G-d, the same as our own, we cannot afford to stand in the way of choice for narrow ideological reasons.

The court has swept away the constitutional impediments to vouchers, but many political obstacles remain. The Jewish community's liberal politics and fears should not be among them. Day.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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