For a country that has fought for thirty years over the question of a woman’s right to choose, we seem to all agree that once a child is born parents have no choice. They are not allowed to send their children to the school they prefer without incurring backbreaking financial penalties.
One would think the freedoms for which our founding fathers fought would include one of the most critical decisions of all: the choice of how to educate your children. Surely the government and the teachers’ unions should have no role in dictating where you can employ your hard-earned tax dollars to educate your kids.
After all, your children’s school is one of the leading determinants of their character. If you send your kids to visionary schools with inspired teachers, chances are they will be intellectually curious and embrace the pursuit of knowledge. If, on the other hand, you send your kids to bland schools with indifferent teachers, your kids will think learning is boring. TV will seem much more interesting.
Yet America seems insistent on blocking parents from using their tax resources to send their kids to the school of their choice. We’re forced to send our kids to what are often failing public schools where the biggest failure of all is the failure to teach any kind of values.
Last month the Democrat-controlled Congress voted to end the school voucher program in the Washington, D.C. area and President Obama joined in the chorus, dismissing school vouchers and school choice.
Now, I know our president is a good and decent man, which makes his actions that much more curious. He and his wife had every chance to send their children to the very same schools he is now forcing low-income, mostly African-American families to attend. Yet he did not even consider it. When he was elected president he did not visit those schools, speak to the teachers, or compare them to private schools in the area. He dismissed them out of hand and enrolled his daughters Sasha and Malia in the most expensive private school in the region, the elite Sidwell Friends.
It seems odd to me that a leader who must set an example would force someone else’s child to do something he would never consider for his own kids.
During the Cold War, both the Soviets and the Americans claimed to have the best governmental systems. John F. Kennedy cut to the chase with this simple and brilliant argument at the Berlin Wall on June 26, 1963: “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.”
That’s right. Voting with your feet is the ultimate expression of what you really believe. And the president and first lady have voted with their feet. They have little to no confidence in America’s public schools. When their kids were in Chicago they went to private schools and the same is true now that they’re in the nation’s capital.
My wife and I spend approximately one-third of our income to send our children to Jewish day schools. It is a crushing financial burden, but one I undertake because it is inconceivable that would I raise my children without Jewish knowledge and Jewish identity. It is likewise inconceivable that I would send my children to a school where there is no values system in place.
This constitutes the biggest argument against our public schools. Because when values are not at the center of the curriculum, the outside culture crashes through without any barricades.
What makes this all the more upsetting is how badly America needs values today. Our economic collapse is primarily the product of insatiable greed and material indulgence. And still we prevent our public-school kids from being exposed to anything higher for fear of religion being granted entry through the rear door.
Fair enough. I want the separation of church and state as much as anybody. But there is a big difference between separating the two and punishing parents who want to choose between the two.
Parents should be given vouchers – which is their tax money anyway – to send their children to the school of their choice. And the government should be funding the secular departments of parochial schools. Paying for children to study math, geometry, history, and geography in a parochial school is hardly a breach of the church-state wall.
Yes, I believe in a parent’s right to choose. And I believe that I as a parent know what is best for my child. Better than the government, and better than the teachers’ unions.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is a bestselling author and the founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network. His website is www.shmuley.com.