Jewish World Review July 13 , 1998 / 19 Tamuz, 5758

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin A step closer
to school choice

VOUCHERS FOR PRIVATE AND RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS have long been bugaboos for the organized Jewish community. The idea that the state would allow parents to use at least a portion of the tax dollars they pay to educate their children outside of the public system has sent shivers down the collective spine of most Jewish organizations.

Their reasoning is that such measures will undermine the separation of religion and state as well as destroy the public schools. No doubt some of them are even more scared following a ruling last month by the Wisconsin Supreme Court which ruled that Milwaukee's school choice program is legal. Under that scheme, underprivileged children will now be able to attend religious as well as private schools of their choice.

The Wisconsin ruling is a victory for supporters of choice that will set the stage for a Supreme Court ruling on the issue. Given the recent trend on the court of allowing more and more forms of support for private and religious education, school choice now has an excellent chance of being validated by a high court ruling.

Living in the past

Only a generation ago, Jewish religious schools were confined to a minority of the most fervently Orthodox communities. The only large-scale parochial school system was Catholic. It was seen by most Jews as exclusionary and a danger to democracy and therefore to the Jews. Only the public schools guaranteed Jews a place in American society.

Though these circumstances have changed, the knee-jerk reaction of Jewish liberals to the possibility of opening up educational choices to parents has not. They still thrive on the annual "December dilemma" controversies in which Jews see themselves as threatened by the imposition of Christmas trees and carols on innocent Jewish eyes and ears. Indeed, as some wags in the Jewish community have said, without this annual Jewish communal conniption fit season, some elements of American Jewry would have no way to express a distinct identity!

I believe both the law and the cause of education were well served by the latest Wisconsin ruling.

Rather than abandon poor and middle class inner city kids to failed public system, school choice gives children the hope of a better education. The real alternative to the failure of the public schools is to offer parents a choice and therefore a chance for their children to succeed. Choice offers parents and students the opportunity to decide where they will get the best schooling.

It would open up the education system to the genius of the marketplace which has worked wonders elsewhere in American society by forcing schools to compete for students. This is a principle which has made American universities the envy of the world. As such, school choice is an essential part of any serious reform of our education Fears about these programs undermining the First Amendment are similarly unwarranted. As an indirect payment to parents and students, School Choice is no different than the G.I. Bill or numerous other programs which legally channel funds indirectly to non-public institutions.

African-American leaders speak out for choice

Last year, at a Washington symposium on the issue, I met two of the more interesting advocates of school choice: State Rep. Polly Williams of Milwaukee (who sponsored the measure recently approved by the Wisconsin court) and former U.S. Congressman Floyd Flake of New York City. Both are African-Americans who rightly believe their community's children have been abandoned by the public educational system and liberal opponents of vouchers.

Flake said he supported vouchers, "because they represent for so many the last hope of obtaining a quality education. We must offer alternatives and vouchers makes sense."

I asked Flake about one of the most powerful anti-vouchers arguments -- and the one cited most often by Jewish opponents of school choice -- the idea that extremist groups like the Nation of Islam will use vouchers to create their own schools. He replied indignantly that the same "regulatory regimen" which certifies public, private and parochial schools today would apply to any such school. He told me that we would do better to "leave it to the good sense of the marketplace. You can speak of any kind of extremist group -- white or black -- but vouchers gives the money directly to parents to choose, not the extremists.

In places like Hartford, Connecticut, where city schools are almost totally segregated by race and academically suspect (one of the largest public high schools in Hartford was actually de-certified by state academic authorities in 1997), it is clear that the public system is failing the overwhelmingly minority student population. Some ideologues would prefer to divert the discussion of this issue into the intellectual dead-end of racism or to calls for increasing the already sky-high budgets of urban public schools Ironically, Hartford's public schools have achieved the distinction of having the lowest academic ratings and the highest funding levels of any school district in the state.

But a Jewish community that is committed to the concept that achieving social justice is an integral part of Jewish belief at some point must ask itself if it is only prepared to offer minorities platitudes about separationism and big government solutions that have already failed. Jews have a moral obligation not to stand in the way of the struggle of inner city students in their battle for a decent education.

The Jewish stake in school choice

In contrast to the not-so-distant past, the greatest problems facing American Jewry are not those of domestic anti-Semitism or threats to Jewish populations abroad. In the face of spiraling rates of assimilation and intermarriage, anyone who is serious about the continued survival of American Jewry knows that Jewish day schools - whose numbers are growing every year - are essential to the Jewish future. The sort of comprehensive Jewish education that these schools provide is the best --- and perhaps only real antidote to the ignorance and apathy that afflicts contemporary American Jewry.

Unfortunately, the cost of this education is prohibitive for most middle class Jews. It may be argued, with much justice, that the primary responsibility for alleviating this burden rests on the Jewish community itself and specifically on Jewish Federations --- the Jewish umbrella fundraising organizations. But given the failure of most Jewish Federations to address this need by making day schools a top priority, many Jews have turned to vouchers and school choice plans as a possible alternative.

School choice has the potential to make Jewish day schools an affordable alternative to public schools. However, the fact that these schools might be a crucial factor in addressing American Jewry's most pressing problem, has not been enough to change the opinions of a Jewish leadership which is still wedded for selfish as well as principled reasons, to the problems and the solutions of the past.

While real threats to our liberties exist, such as the failed Istook amendment (which would legalize public school prayer), school choice is not such a threat. Scare tactics and red herrings not withstanding, choice does not establish religion. It merely respects the right of each child to have the best education available.

Contrary to the doomsayers, choice will not destroy the public schools but allow competition to make them better. They will not empower extremists but they will empower parents of every race and religion to help save their children. A Jewish community which believes that these children made in the image of G-d just as much as Jewish children, cannot afford to stand in the way of choice for narrow ideological reasons.

School choice is not a panacea for the ills of America's urban areas any more than it would magically solve Jewish continuity problems. But it is a healthy step in the right direction which deserves a full trial. For the most parochial as well as the most universalist of reasons, American Jews have good reasons to support school choice.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association highest award: First Place in The Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing. The Rapoport award is named for the longtime editor of the Jerusalem Post and was given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 1997 Simon Rockower Awards dinner in Cleveland on June 18, 1998.

6/26/98: The Holocaust Museum and Mort Klein
6/12/98: What price Jewish education?
6/5/98: Ten books for a long, hot summer: A serious vacation reading list for Jewish history lovers
5/29/98: Double standards here and there: Hypocrisy raises its ugly head in Israel and the U.S.
5/26/98: Hartford Seminary tangle points to bigger issues
5/22/98:The importance of being Bibi
5/14/98: The ‘dream palace' of the anti-Zionists: Hartford Seminary controversy has historic roots
4/26/98: All-rightniks versus the alarmists: Focussing on the Jewish bottom line
4/13/98:Of ends and means and victims
4/5/98: Hang up on Albright
3/29/98: Bigshots or activists?: Clinton's three clerics return from China
3/27/98: Will American Jews help Clinton push Israel into a corner?
3/22/98: Anti-Semitism then and now
3/15/98: Still searching for Jews at the opera
3/11/98: Remembering Eric Breindel
3/8/98: Getting lost in history
3/5/98: Follow the money to Hamas
2/22/98: Re-writing "Anne Frank" - A distorted legacy
2/15/98: Religious persecution is still a Jewish issue
2/6/98: A lost cause remembered (the failure of the Bund)
2/1/98: Economic aid is not in Israel's interest
1/25/98: Jews are news, and a fair shake for Israel is hard to find

©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin