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Jewish World Review /Feb. 25, 1999 / 8 Adar, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin

Changing Our Minds on School Choice

THE JEWISH COMMUNITY MUST OFFER MINORITIES more than platitudes about separationism and public-sector solutions that have already failed.

Is the organized Jewish community capable of changing its mind on an issue?

Though politicians do it every day , probably the hardest thing for any group with integrity to do is to change its mind in public. But that is exactly what some American Jews are asking the organized community to do on the issue known as vouchers, or school choice, which Jewish groups have historically opposed.

Given what is still a strong consensus on this issue, there is probably little likelihood of this happening. But a crack is widening in the wall of Jewish consensus on this issue.

Vouchers are back in the news this month as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge has presented a bill to the Keystone State's legislature designed to give parents in designated areas grants as alternatives to their local public schools. Other voucher initiatives are also pending in other localities.

Though vouchers come in an almost infinite variety of plans, the principle behind all of them is simple: Give parents back some of the money they pay in taxes and let them use it for tuition at the school - private or religious - of their choice.

One reason for this opposition stems from a passionate belief that even indirect government funding of private or parochial education is the thin edge of the wedge that will destroy the "wall of separation" between church and state in our democracy. Issues such as sectarian school prayer are rightly seen as threatening to the rights, as well as the sensibilities, of Jewish students and parents.

Though this "wall" is vital, in practice, it is not absolute. The fact is, government has subsidized religious education on the college level via government grants, such as the G.I. Bill of Rights, for more than half a century without jeopardizing the existence of the republic or threatening minority rights. And the courts have wisely begun to move even further in the direction of allowing reasonable interaction between religion and state through programs like school choice.

The key to understanding the rigid separationism of the Jewish community is to be found in our devotion to the public-school system itself. A century ago, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise referred to America's public schools as "temples of liberty."

Only a generation ago, Jewish religious schools were confined to 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. Only the public schools guaranteed Jews a place in American society. Though these circumstances have changed, unfortunately, our thinking speaks more to the realities of the 1920s than to today.

But many American Jews are beginning to question rigid separationism - the fundamentalism of liberal intellectuals - because it conflicts with two vital interests of the Jewish community.

The most specific of these is American Jewry's increasing stake in the growth of the day-school movement. Anyone who is serious about the continued survival of American Jewry knows that Jewish day schools are essential to the Jewish future.

Unfortunately, the cost of this education is prohibitive for most middle-class Jewish families. It may be argued, with justice, that the primary responsibility for alleviating this burden rests on the Jewish community itself. But even as we begin to address this, other needs continue to claim a major share of scarce Jewish funds. Unless a revolution occurs in Jewish life to address the tuition problem, day schools could become merely the Jewish equivalent of prep schools for the rich. School-choice plans might be the way to make day schools an affordable alternative to public schools for the Jewish middle class. SOCIAL JUSTICE AND SCHOOL CHOICE
The most pressing Jewish interest that dictates support of school choice, however, has less to do with the parochial interests of the Jewish community than it does with social justice.

The plight of children stuck in inner-city schools in a state of collapse is not something that Jews can afford to ignore. Public education, once the hallmark of an upwardly mobile society, has deteriorated to the point where, in many cases, it has become a death trap for America's poorest citizens. That's why there is increasing support for choice among African-Americans.

Some ideologues would prefer to divert the discussion of this issue into the intellectual dead end of racism. Others make strong arguments for increasing funding to public schools, but as welcome as that would be, it won't solve all of public education's problems.

The real alternative is to offer parents a choice --- and therefore a chance for their children to succeed.

A Jewish community committed to social justice must at some point ask itself if it is only prepared to offer minorities platitudes about separationism and public-sector solutions that have already failed.

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 and deserves a full trial. Well-crafted choice plans will not destroy the public schools, nor will they compromise our constitutional rights. They will empower parents of every race and religion to help save their children.

A Jewish community that believes these children are made in the image of G-d just as much as our own cannot afford to stand in the way of choice for narrow ideological reasons.

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 Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin