The single greatest injustice facing American parents today is that they are financially forced to send their children to schools not of their choosing. If you want to understand the level of unfairness you need look no further than my home state of New Jersey. Saturday's Wall Street Journal reported that our state's Supreme Court has "taken control of the $11 billion Property Tax Relief Fund," funded by our highest-in-the-nation property taxes. The Journal reports, "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? A single community, Asbury Park, gets $30,000 per pupil - enough to send them to the country's best prep schools - and still "they produce dismal test results."
But I knew even before the article appeared what suckers we New Jersey taxpayers are. In my own community of Englewood you have to sell a kidney to afford the sky-high property taxes that fund an approximately $23,000 per pupil public school expenditure that likewise produces poor test results.
Included within our community are approximately 600 hard-working Orthodox Jewish families that make up the lion's share of the tax base. But not one of those families gets even a $10 subsidy from its taxes to help pay for its children's religious school - which is curious when you consider how much money the government saves by having children in a values-based education system which produces far lower delinquency rates.
NOW, SINCE we read daily of the nonstop corruption and waste that seems endemic to our state, why do we in New Jersey take it? Why aren't there protests in the street? Honestly, I have no idea, other than to say it's becoming prohibitive to even live here, and many have indeed begun moving out.
I personally know scores of religious Jewish families slowly being bankrupted by the combination of high taxes and high tuition. There is no way on earth they can pay both. And this of course applies to Catholic parents, evangelical parents and Islamic parents. Why does our country so strongly discriminate against parents who want their kids to pray every day? What does our country have against families who believe in ethical religious traditions? How long will parents whose only sin is to want their children to know and love God be punished? And let's not trot out the old chestnut of separation of Church and State. This is not the state's money. It's the parent's money. It's their tax dollars. Why is it taken from them without any benefit to their kids?
And what if you're a parent who isn't even religious but simply disapproves of coeducation? What if you're of the opinion that children, especially girls, do much better when concerns about popularity among the opposite sex are minimized? Should you be forced to ignore your conscience for money?
At this stage in my life, with two children in college and another six in private Jewish schools, the tuition burden has become enormous. There is no way we can save anything since, by the time we pay Englewood property taxes and Jewish day school tuition, there is simply nothing left.
And still the Jewish community refuses to seriously address the tuition crisis with the only real solution, which is to finally allow public funding for at least the secular departments of parochial schools. Hebrew charter schools are a necessary first step. But walking on egg shells to forestall any accusation of imparting a Jewish identity is simply not a complete solution. Less so is sending your kid to a public school supplemented with a Jewish tutor. That still doesn't provide for immersion in a Jewish environment in which a child wears tzitzit and a yarmulke, washes his hands for bread and makes the proper blessings before eating various foods.
Let's not kid ourselves about there being any real replacement for a Jewish day-school education when it comes to instilling a Jewish identity. Total immersion in a Jewish environment is the single greatest guarantor that our children will proudly choose to be Jewish. The same applies to having more Jewish kids. Our community's number-one threat today is not intermarriage but the pitifully low birthrate. More families are choosing to have fewer children because in their minds they simply can't afford them, especially the tuition.
Next week the GA will take place in Washington, DC. Sure enough, on the lengthy agenda there is one breakout session entitled, "Accessing Federal and State Support and Services for Jewish Day Schools." That's nice, but it's nowhere near enough. Creating the political will to provide government funding for parochial education must be our community's number-one priority. It cannot be just one of many subjects. I hereby declare my willingness to work with individuals and organizations dedicated to seeing this become a reality.
My passion has always been to bring Jewish values to the world and help heal an increasingly valueless society. But that cannot happen unless we raise a generations of children versed in Jewish texts, Jewish wisdom and Jewish history. If we don't find a way to secure permanent funding for Jewish day schools in the next decade, the edifice will come tumbling down.
The writer is the founder of This World: The Values Network and the author of Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children and Parenting with Fire. www.shmuley.com