Although many Americans express a reflexive loyalty to the public schools, an increasing number - Jews included - have begun to explore whether a system of school vouchers to allow parents to choose any school for their children might be better. Here are some good reasons all Americans might find school choice an improvement over the status quo:
Vouchers would reduce the power of the teachers' unions, thus improving teaching and creating more flexibility for schools to innovate.
Competition will lead to improvement in all schools, public and private, as each strives to attract as many students as possible.
African-Americans in urban areas are among the strongest proponents of vouchers, because their children are the ones who need it the most. Wealthy parents in suburban areas often oppose school choice, but they already have choices in where to educate their children.
In addition, Jews in particular may favor vouchers because they would likely lead to more American Jewish children attending Jewish day schools. While not a guarantee of future Jewish identity, such schools provide a strong boost of Jewish knowledge and, often, practice. American Jews who attend other kinds of school are at significantly more risk for assimilation and intermarriage.
But all of those arguments have been made and made again in the school choice debate among Jews and non-Jews. I propose a different kind of argument, that I think should be at the center of this dispute: The current system just isn't fair.
RIGHT NOW, if you're secular and want to educate your children with your values, you can do it for free. But if you're religious, you have to pay thousands of dollars to do it. It's what I like to call the frum tax. What's worse, you still have to pay the government an annual fee - sometimes based on the value of your property - to educate other people's children with values you don't agree with.
If there were no public education, and this system were proposed, it would be denounced as grossly inequitable and possibly anti-Semitic. Yet since we're used to it, we barely notice the injustice in the current system of American education.
Because Orthodox families have multiple children, paying for yeshiva or day school education can become quite onerous. The common retort of the anti-voucher side - that tax dollars for religious instruction are unconstitutional - is simply false. The Supreme Court gets to decide what's constitutional, and so far it's ruled in favor of vouchers. Further, even if that charge were true, that's only a reason to tear down the current system of tax-financed secular-only education, which is terribly unfair.
To their discredit, Reform Jews have been outspoken against school choice. Earlier in the decade, Reform honcho Rabbi Eric Yoffie said, "The people who engineer voucher proposals are almost always those with no interest in maintaining the public schools and whose real aim to is secure funding for their own schools." Well, duh.
The public schools have largely failed, and are utterly inappropriate for many of the parents who send their children to yeshivas, Bais Yaakov schools and even Solomon Schechter and Reform day schools. Why shouldn't parents try to obtain funds for the schools their children attend? The fact that the public schools will have to innovate and become better to retain students is a side benefit, but not the main point, which is to even out the unfair system described above.
I urge Reform and other Jews who are so devoted to the public schools they don't even notice how the present system oppresses their more religious brothers and sisters to reevaluate their position and look for ways to develop school choice that leads to healthier schools all around.