Photo Credit: Agudat Israel News tweet
Greeting cards decorated by yeshiva students presented to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during her meeting with the Agudath Israel mission to Washington.

{Originally posted to the author’s blogsite, Emes Ve-Emunah}

Sometimes we Jews are our own worst enemies. Even those of us that are Orthodox tend to be critical of praise from the outside. We may see it as an error. Or based on ignorance. Or as biased and undeserving praise.  But if I had to guess, I’d say a lot of the criticism of such praise is self centered – based on our own personal, religious or political biases.

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I recall one case in particular. It was right here in Chicago. Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov (HSBY) was the subject of spectacular review of high schools in America.

US News and World Report is rather well known and respected for their university and professional school ratings. Back in 1999, they decided to do the same thing for high schools. They ended up by saying that of the over 1000 schools that participated in the study Hanna Sacks was one of six best high schools in the country. To say that this  was quite an accomplishment is an understatement. Especially when one considers their modest budget.

The study’s designer and author, Dale  Mezzacappa attributed HSBY’s success mostly to its principal at the time, Dr. Shani Bechhofer. Among the many parameters used to make that evaluation was the students per capita taking AP courses (advanced placement). Something Dr. Bechhofer strove for and accomplished very quickly.

You would think that the Orthodox community of Chicago would have been very proud of that achievement. I certainly was. But you would be thinking wrong. There was at least one right wing rabbinic leader that was upset that a religious school was being touted for its success in secular studies instead of religious studies. He did not think much of that accomplishment.

Then there were the parents of the highly touted Orthodox Ida Crown Jewish Academy (ICJA). They felt that the recognition given to HSBY was a joke. For them ICJA  was far and away a superior school. HSBY was after all only a Bais Yaakov. Everyone understood that its religious studies program was all that really mattered to them. Secular studies were at best a distant second.

The Academy’s curriculum on the other hand was a college preparatory program from the word go. Secular studies were taken far more seriously by these college bound students and their parents who sought Ivy League educations for them post high school. Why did HSBY do so well compared to ICJA? The administration and parents of Ida Crown explained that they did not participate in the study. Had they done so, they would have blown  HSBY away.

Perhaps. We will never really know. But as noted there were over 1000 schools that did participate. I can’t believe they were all on the lower rung of the educational ladder. There had to be some schools that were thought of by their parents and administration the same way ICJA parents and administration did about theirs. HSBY and 5 other beat them all.

I understand why Academy parents would be in shock and disbelief. But that does not make HSBYs high raking any less valid. But don’t ever say that to an ICJA parent.  They completely rejected HSBYs ranking. (I wonder though if they reject that magazine’s university rankings?)

Which brings me to an article in Times of Israel:

There was a meeting last Wednesday between the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos and Agudath Israel’s lay leaders. From the Times of Israel:
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos praised Orthodox Jewish schools as a model for publicly funded education.
“I applaud Agudath Israel for their leadership and commitment to providing their community with access to educational options that meet the academic and religious needs of their families,”
“I look forward to continuing to work with Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Jewish community and all who believe that every child, regardless of where they live or their family’s income, should have an equal opportunity to a quality education,” she said.

This will no doubt generate derision from the left. Even from parents that send their children to Orthodox schools. Their disdain for Mrs. DeVos will override common sense. The comments may go something like this:“Getting a compliment from this no-nothing is worthless.” She is a religious fanatic that wants to destroy public education as we know it. If she gets her way, the poorest kids in the worst neighborhoods will be left out in the cold with no education at all. She is so ignorant that if she says Orthodox Jewish Education is a model for public school education – then the exact opposite must be true.

I obviously do not agree. While she may have no experience in public school education, that does not invalidate her views. Those views have the backing of people that do have some experience in public school education. But without the vested interests of teachers unions. Besides, as I said. Its common sense.

She and they see public school education as a failure that needs to be replaced. While there are many good public schools in this country, the inner city is not where you will find them. There has to be some responsibility for that laid at the feet of a public school system that has been in place for decades.

Parents ought to be able to decide what kind of education will be the best fit for their children. Sending them to a one size fits all public school system is not the way to achieve that. School choice is. This is based on a principle cited in Proverbs:  Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko. One must teach a young person at his level. Public education is not a practitioner of that ancient and wise principle.

Orthodox Jewish day schools and high schools have been pretty successful in educating the children of Orthodox Jews. At least those with good secular studies programs like the above-mentioned Hanna Sacks did in 1999.The fact that they are private allows them to choose the curriculum that suits their needs; the needs of their own community; and the needs of  society in general.  What better model for school choice than an Orthodox school?

Giving public school parents vouchers so they can choose which school to send their children to will provide unprecedented opportunities for those inner city children.  Instead of remaining uneducated, illiterate, and unskilled – and turning to a life of crime that so many of them do – they will have a chance to to get good jobs, become contributing members of society, better citizens, and better parents.

Some will attend college prep schools; some religious schools; and some vocational or trade schools. Each according to their own skills and needs.  Based on input from parents, professionals, and the students themselves they will be able to choose a school that is a good fit for their needs instead of the one that just happens to be close to their homes.

Those who continue to believe the status quo is just fine, and that it just needs a little tweaking have been saying that forever to an ongoing and utter failure of most inner city schools. It’s time to try something else. And the Orthodox model might just be the right one to emulate.

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