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April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
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American Jews and School Choice

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The arguments in favor of school choice and voucher systems have by now become quite familiar. Vouchers and school choice introduce elements of competition into the educational system, breaking the local monopolies of the public school districts. School choice produces a much more heterogeneous mix of school types and educational styles, broadening the choices of parents and pupils. School choice puts real pressure on the schools to improve quality and performance.

Under vouchers and school choice, power over the educational system is ultimately held by parents, not by bureaucrats and teachers unions. Parents are ‘empowered’ as schools must compete to satisfy their expectations. America has the world’s best university system because the schools have to compete and their ‘clients’ have real choice, including choice through ‘vouchers’ such as aid for veterans. America has the developed world’s worst public school system because the public schools do not compete, because their clients do not have choice.

If vouchers and school choice hold promises of solutions to the abysmal performance of American public schools, they offer special attraction for the American Jewish community. School choice may be the only means by which the American Jewish community, or at least the non-Orthodox majority within it, will be able to maintain its existence in the long run. Under a school choice system, Jews would be able to choose Jewish schools without facing the double taxation currently deterring a great many from considering Jewish alternatives to the public school system. If Jewish parents were given the option of opting out of the public school system and using their fair share of education tax revenues for private schools through vouchers, no doubt a very large number would choose to do so.

Under a voucher system, Jews would be able at long last to give their children a decent Jewish education, something that’s difficult and in many cases impossible under the current American educational system. Moreover, the menu of Jewish schools would no doubt broaden significantly under a voucher system, and would include a wide range from the secular to the ultra-Orthodox, with all lifestyles in between.

The alternative to Jewish day schools is visible to all: rampant assimilation, ignorance about Judaism, and astronomical intermarriage rates. Jewish day schools would become a viable alternative for all Jews under a voucher system, and would represent a necessary - and possibly even a sufficient – condition for the long-run cultural, ethnic and religious survival of the American Jewish community.

That being the case, almost all American Jews should be gung-ho supporters of school choice and vouchers, right?

Wrong. Ever so wrong.

(There is a minority within the American Jewish community, mainly consisting of the Orthodox, who do endorse school choice and voucher programs. Agudath Israel has long supported school choice and vouchers and has filed amicus briefs in favor of such programs. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations has been supportive, as has been Chabad Lubavitch.)

Near Universal Opposition

The position of the organized American Jewish community on school choice and voucher proposals has been one of near-universal opposition, at least outside of the Orthodox communities. Jews probably have been the most vocal opponents of school choice in America. Opposition to school choice has been so uniform that it is safe to say that the organized (non-Orthodox) American Jewish community is far more unanimous in its opposition to school choice than it is in its support for Israel.

It is often believed that Jews oppose school choice because they fear it is a back-door way to create public funding for parochial schools, which they think implies the ‘establishment’ of religion. But the fiercest promoters of vouchers for parochial schools are Catholics, hardly a serious candidate for ‘establishment’ in a country with a Protestant majority and a rich history of anti-Catholicism.

The use of ‘public funding’ for school vouchers is not all that different from an army veteran who uses his veteran benefits to attend a religious seminary of his choice or similar church-related institution of higher education. Religiously diverse Holland and other democratic countries have successfully had voucher systems for many years without any resulting theological coercion.

But there is an additional problem with the belief that Jewish opposition to school choice is based on fear of religious coercion; namely, surveys of Jews do not show that fear of ‘funding religion’ is at what drives Jewish opposition to school choice at all. The Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, in conjunction with the Los Angeles JCRC, published a study of Jewish attitudes toward private schools. Importantly, the poll found that the religious issue - fear of government funding of religion and parochial schools – wasn’t at all a major fear or concern of voucher opponents. The study found that voucher opponents were against school choice and supported the need to maintain the public school monopoly in California because they were doctrinaire liberals.

The Reform synagogue movement has been one of the most strident forces within the American Jewish community opposing all forms of school choice and vouchers. In particular, the Religious Action Center (RAC) of the Reform movement has long devoted its energies and funds to issuing a long series of political position papers on a wide variety of issues that almost never vary in content or tone from those positions of the furthest-left factions of the Democratic Party.

On school choice, the RAC has issued several statements, including a recent position paper titled “On Vouchers and Tax Credits for Non-Public Education.” It opposes all uses of tax credits and vouchers for non-public school education, and even purports to rationalize this on grounds of ‘Jewish tradition, which declares study to be a divine command.’ ” The authors of the statement seem to have forgotten that Jewish tradition also involved Jewish children going to Jewish schools.

The Anti-Defamation League published in August 1997 a policy paper called ‘School Vouchers Reconsidered,’ in which the organization repeated its unequivocal opposition to school choice and vouchers. The ADL’s Washington office has been particularly active in lobbying against school choice. The American Jewish Congress’s Commission on National Affairs has been active in opposing school voucher programs. The American Jewish Committee’s opposition to vouchers goes back decades. One could go on and on.

Jihad Against Vouchers

All of the above is, to put it mildly, bizarre. School choice offers a real alternative that would reform and improve the dismal quality of education in America. It is a needed change for Americans in general, but for Jews all the more so. What do Jewish opponents find so objectionable about school choice and vouchers? Why have Jewish liberals launched a jihad against vouchers?

The main arguments in favor of vouchers in general are no less valid for the Jewish community. Vouchers create parental choice in a system where ‘one size fits all’ has long been the official mantra. Vouchers in effect confer power over the educational system to parents, taking it away from teachers unions and bureaucrats. Competition in education promises as much benefit as competition elsewhere, including wide ranges of heterogeneous choice, innovation, and cost efficiency. School choice offers an alternative to inner city children trapped in low-quality schools. It has a long proven track record in raising education achievement.

The same American population that produces youths who score among the lowest in the world in science and math while in public school also produces the best system of higher education and research on the planet. Why is that? Because competition is suppressed at the level of the public schools but not at the level of the universities. The most persuasive reason to adopt school choice is that the lack of such a program has produced an abysmally poor American public school system whose achievements would be an embarrassment to even in a Third World nation.

What about the arguments against school choice? One of the most commonly cited is the fear that under vouchers, fanatics like the Ku Klux Klan and Louis Farrakhan will open schools and some parents will send their children there with public funds. No doubt a few parents would. But in a democracy, fanaticism is defeated by being exposed and forced to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Parents choosing such schools would condemn their own children to probably failure and poverty in later life.

Is there any reason to believe that public school vouchers would be used to study fanaticism any more so than are, say, veterans benefits today – which is to say hardly at all?

Ironically, the public schools have long been arenas in which many forms of fanaticism have been present and taught, especially leftist fanaticism, including notions of political correctness, anti-Americanism, Afrocentrism, radical homosexual ideas, radical feminism, etc. The public schools in America have been the promoters of every wacky educational fad to come crawling out of the woodwork, from ebonics to ‘whole math’ (i.e., fuzzy math) to ‘whole language’ to the cult of the ‘self-esteem.’

Opponents of school choice argue that there is no guarantee that the private schools funded with vouchers would be any better than the public schools. But there is indeed such a guarantee - namely the fact that parents would be making the choices. Parents will not opt out of the public schools for a private school that is worse than the public school alternative. Schools that fail to provide quality education will find it difficult to attract parents bearing vouchers.

Of course, it would be the parents themselves who judge the quality of schools and teachers, not the political bureaucrats. And that is precisely what frightens the teachers unions.

Voucher opponents argue that private schools would be no more cost effective than public schools, and this argument will no doubt convince anyone who believes that the post office is more efficient than Federal Express and its clones. To believe that competition raises costs rather than lowering them would require that one never set foot inside of an economics classroom. Vouchers would severely cut back on the diversion of educational funding to the massive non-teacher educational bureaucracies. And vouchers with school choice would end the stranglehold on schoolboards by teachers unions. That is why the teachers unions oppose them.

By de-unionizing the teaching profession, school choice would lead to more effective quality control by schools in hiring and firing. It would allow talented teachers to earn higher salaries, rather than wages set by across-the-board union ladders where the mediocre and the talented are paid alike. It would create a competitive labor market for teachers that would benefit the gifted while driving out the incompetent.

Opponents of school choice argue that vouchers are a gimmick to bleed the poor and pamper the rich. But no idea could be more absurd. The rich can already go to private schools. Vouchers would help the non-rich expand their choices of schools. The fact that the poor and racial minorities are the most consistent supporters and users of existing voucher programs says it all. Their high level of support belies the fear that vouchers will produce segregation; in any case parochial schools are already generally more integrated than public schools.

Under voucher plans no one would be coerced into attending religious schools. All that would happen would be that Jewish religious and non-religious day schools would be as entitled to voucher financing as any other.

Religion of Liberalism

If American Jewish opposition to school vouchers does not stem from fear of religious coercion, on what then is it based?

The answer is very simple. For many non-Orthodox American Jews, political liberalism has become their new religion. Political liberalism has been the main avenue of assimilation for them. Indeed, large sections of the American Jewish community have adopted a sort of pseudo-religion that argues that the essence of Judaism and ‘Jewish values’ is nothing more or less than the pursuit of the liberal political agenda. ‘Jewish values’ get conscripted in support of political liberalism, even when the cause in question clearly violates Jewish values in the most unambiguous ways.

As part of this campaign to equate Judaism with political liberalism, assimilated Jewish liberals see school choice and voucher programs as a horrid threat because they think it violates liberalism. They oppose private choice and parental powers, and prefer a nanny state that makes sure that we do things that are for our own good.

The enormous irony of course is that the large majority of inner city minorities - especially African Americans - strongly support school choice. In a nutshell, Jewish liberals oppose school choice because as liberals they think it is bad for blacks, other racial minorities, and poor people, regardless of what blacks, other racial minorities, and poor people themselves think and want.

The near unanimity of the non-Orthodox American Jewish community regarding vouchers calls to mind their similar near unanimity in favor of affirmative action programs which purportedly compensate groups who were past victims of discrimination. Yet among those groups who suffered past discrimination, Jews are arbitrarily excluded from receiving preferences and indeed continue to be subject to discrimination under affirmative action because they are classified as ‘whites.’ In other words, affirmative action programs discriminate against Jews.

Again, the reason for this support of affirmative action is that the non-Orthodox Jewish political agenda is nothing more or less than the liberal political agenda, for these people have misdefined Judaism as political liberalism. The assimilationist adoption of liberal pseudo-religion explains the enormous Jewish opposition to the one program that is more essential than any other to ensure Jewish survival in America.

Given the fierce opposition by liberal Jews to school choice and vouchers, it is difficult to imagine any proposal essential for Jewish survival that would not be similarly opposed by the doctrinaire liberals who staff and run the Conferences, Committees and Leagues that comprise the Jewish Establishment in America.

Steven Plait is a professor at Haifa University. His book ‘The Scout’ is available at Amazon.com. He can be reached at steven_plaut@yahoo.com.

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About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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