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An Open Letter to Congressman Pascrell on School Choice and Vouchers

Rabbi Shmuley

Dear Bill,

At the Juneteenth celebrations in Englewood, I was speaking to African-American parents who were decrying the state of the public school system in our town. We spend approximately $23k per child per year, but still have a failure rate of about one third. I was amazed at how many parents were telling me they preferred to send their children to private school but could not afford it. I asked them if they would support school vouchers that would empower them to do just that: take their own hard-earned money and use it to send their children to the school of their choice. Overwhelmingly, they said yes. They were adamant that they had the right to override the public school system if they so chose.

You and I, Bill, have the capacity to do something unique. We can join together, as candidates for Congress from opposing parties, to endorse school choice. Just think about the implications. Rather than seeing towns in our district jack up real estate taxes more and more just to afford out-of-control education costs – and in Englewood property taxes have gone up 70 percent in the last decade – we could jointly advocate school vouchers that would cost about half the public school bill per child, and arguably give kids a better education.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we harm the public school system. On the contrary: I believe that school choice will make the public school system far better by creating competition. Why are so many parents dissatisfied with public schools? Because they are a monopoly. And monopolies have a hard time sustaining quality.

In my own community, the absence of a voucher system is actually making the community grow smaller. Jewish parents whose only crime is to want their children to learn who Abraham, Moses, and David were cannot afford both the astronomical property taxes of North Jersey, and the high school tuition. So they are having fewer children.

This is outrageous and utterly unfair. We pay insane property taxes in Bergen Country when not one dollar can finance even the secular education of our parochial schools. We all believe in separation of Church and State. But could there really be an honest objection to government subsidizing secular subjects like mathematics and geography, even if it occurs in a parochial school?

Parents who seek a values education for their children should not be penalized for wanting to expose them to a tradition that will make them into more moral, ethical, and responsible citizens.

America is alone among leading industrialized nations in not providing any funding for parochial schools, even for their secular departments. In my community of Englewood, New Jersey, we have approximately 700 Modern Orthodox Jewish families, the overwhelming majority of which send their children to Jewish day schools. Were we to send our children to the public school system, it would collapse in a day, Bill. Still, we have never summoned the political will to organize and demand that even a fraction of the highest property taxes in the nation be applied toward offsetting the high costs of school tuition.

Many of my Islamic brothers and sisters in Paterson, where you were once mayor, Bill, feel the same way. They love their religion and want their children to be raised in it. They want to send them to a religious, Islamic school. Should America penalize them for simply loving their faith? And what about all the Catholic parents in our district who want to send their kids to a Catholic school? Who is the government to tell them that they can’t? After all, it’s the not the government’s money, but the parents. The government has no money. It takes it from us.

In my area, private Jewish school tuition costs somewhere between $10,000 and $13,000 per child, and for that sum – which is significantly lower than what the public schools in the same areas are spending per child – children get a comprehensive and quality education. I suspect the Catholic and Islamic schools cost about the same. Were we to grant parents a voucher to send their children to any of these parochial schools, the local government expenditure per child would immediately decrease by about 40 percent.

There are few choices as personal and important as the educational environment in which our children are immersed for most of their waking hours. Yet in the United States, unless parents want to risk bankruptcy just to afford tuition, they are given no choice.

The DC Voucher program is an important case in point, Bill. President Obama sends his children to Sidwell Friends, the most expensive school in the capital. Yet he did not support African-American parents being able to exercise the same right. In March 2011, President Obama opposed a renewed DC voucher program authored by John Boehner and Joseph Lieberman. “The Administration strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students,” a White House statement declared.

Now, Bill, let’s be honest. I mean no disrespect to the president, but this smacks of hypocrisy. Forcing parents to send their children to schools that you would never consider for your own kids? Come on.

The single greatest injustice facing American parents today is, arguably, that they are forced to send their children to schools not of their choosing. The Wall Street Journal reported in October, 2009, that New Jersey’s Supreme Court had “taken control of the $11 billion Property Tax Relief Fund,” funded by our astronomical, highest-in-the-nation property taxes. The Journal reported: “The court sends more than half of the state aid to 31 largely urban ‘special needs’ school districts with the remaining 554 largely suburban towns fighting over the rest.”

Want to know how badly abused our tax dollars are in the state’s education system? The Journal reported that a single community, Asbury Park, gets 30,000 dollars per pupil – enough to send them to the country’s best prep schools – and still “they produce dismal test results.”

Why do we take it? Why aren’t there protests in the streets of New Jersey? Honestly, I have no idea, other than to say that it’s becoming prohibitive to even live here in Jersey, and many are moving out, which explains why you and Steve Rothman had to fight each other for the Democratic primary in the district as New Jersey lost a congressional seat.

And if we want parents to stay and believe in our state, we have to give them one of life’s most important freedoms: the right to choose the schools that will educate their kids.

Will you join me, Bill?

I thank you and eagerly await your response.

Sincerely,

 

About the Author: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.


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