An Argument for the Support of School Vouchers from a Jewish Day School Point of View


    The reason why alternative approaches to Jewish education are unable to compete with the traditional orthodox and after-school synagogue options is in a nutshell lack of resources. In the case of the orthodox option the strongly held faith of the orthodox minority is sufficient to overcome the high price of Jewish education relative to the (for them) unacceptable alternatives. In the case of after school education the lack of resources translates into poor quality. The real monopoly, in my view, responsible for the lack of affordable alternatives for Jewish parents, is the public school system.

    The main hurdle that we face as recruiters for Jewish day school education is price. It is the same hurdle that any private school alternative faces. Parents, even those who "can afford" a private school, have already paid their taxes, so the additional cost to them of educating their children at the public school is close to zero. The additional private school cost is many thousands of dollars. We are not competing on an even playing field. Itís the public school monopoly that is the problem. And it is breaking that monopoly that is the solution. Recently more and more Jewish, and other, parents have been willing to pay the difference to send their children to private schools because they judge the quality difference to be worth it. But they remain in the decided minority. I have no doubt that if Jewish parents had a real choice, that is, one that presented them with the real prices of the alternatives, most of them would opt for private schools and many of them for Jewish day schools. One alternative that would achieve this is, of course, a voucher system.

    Now I know that Jewish intellectuals in general have a strongly negative visceral response to any mention of vouchers. I want to urge an open minded evaluation of the case for them in general and, in particular, in the context of Jewish day school education. I want to try and identify the various arguments against a voucher system. (There are many arguments against vouchers from those on the right or from libertarians who regard them as dangerous insofar as they may extend the power of government over the private education sector. Though I sympathize with some of these, I will disregard them here because the Jewish response is almost always from the other side.) The voucher system I have in mind is one that would provide parents a choice of where to send their children to school by providing them with the equivalent in vouchers (or tax credits, or some such refund scheme) of the cost to the taxpayer of educating their children in the public schools. So it is not an argument for getting the state out of the business of subsidizing education. It is an argument for getting the state out of the business of producing education. Or, since I could imagine a dual system (such as we have in higher education), it would remove the monopoly of the state in producing education. A voucher system would resemble the GI bill.

    It seems to me there are two main arguments against vouchers, the "church-state separation argument" and the "social responsibility argument".

  1. the church-state separation argument:

Many who oppose vouchers fear that they violate the constitutional separation of church and state "because state money will be used for religious education". I believe the logic is faulty. Right now the state is involved in the choice that parents make regarding choices about their childrenís religious education. That is because the state makes the price of a non-religious education much cheaper than a religious one. Saying that the state is uninvolved now adopts the myth that an education that is devoid of religious content is somehow to be considered "neutral". It is not neutral. It discriminates against those who, at equal prices, would have chosen a positive religious content. It discriminates against those who would rather have their tax money educate children in a religion of their parentsí choice. Can a case not be made that the only neutral situation is one that gives the parents a choice, that is to say, is non-coercive with regard to both imposing or depriving religious content? On the constitutional aspects of this issue you would be better able to judge than I.

A variation of this theme is the fear that some Jews and secular people generally have of the threat of religious Christian schools in indoctrinating our youth. This seems to me to be both a hypocritical and a dangerous argument. It is hypocritical because it applies a double standard. While our responses to Jewish day schools vary, very few of us would, I believe, suggest that they are dangerous corrupting influences on our youth. Most Jews would support a parentís right to choose this option for his/her child. On what basis do we look askance at the same right for the Christian right? The argument is dangerous because it suggests that the state has a role in deciding how much and what kind of religion is socially beneficial In summary, I donít believe we as Jews can oppose vouchers on the principle that they will provide Christians with the additional wherewithal to educate their children as they see fit. But mostly this is not the main argument.

  1. The social responsibility argument.

Mostly the reluctance to even consider vouchers seems to come from the conviction that a voucher system will be harmful to the cause of "social equality" (as you point out a value strongly held by modern secular Jews). There is the perception that vouchers will destroy the public school system and that this will exacerbate or perpetuate poverty.

In passing, I would note that if this argument were valid, which I think it is decidedly not, it implies that the cause of Jewish survival is worth sacrificing for the achievement of greater general equality. I am not sure how Jews in general would respond to this trade off, but at least it should be recognized by those who make the argument.

I donít think such a trade off exists. This is a big subject that I cannot do justice to in this already too long letter, but I want to assert a few things. It is becoming more widely acknowledged that the public school systems are, in general, failing in their overall mission. I take it as part of their mission to provide all elements of the population with at least an "adequate" education. I understand the ideals that surround the public schools system as an institution to be those of advancing the aims of "equality of opportunity" for all Americans regardless of gender, race, national origin or other educationally irrelevant characteristics and of providing opportunities for those who have different learning styles and approaches as well. It has been thought that schools that were segregated by ethnic group could not deliver on these aims and so the aim of desegregation has evolved along with our national educational policy.

As it stands now, seen in the light of these aspirations, I believe we should be bitterly disappointed. There are some very good public schools, even some superlative ones. These are few in number and they are located primarily in the suburbs. They are attended mainly by children from affluent families, mostly white. Most of our public schools are substandard, overcrowded and bureaucratic. Many of those in the inner cities are downright dangerous - they are breeding grounds for the drug traffic, for teenage pregnancy, for gang warfare and much else besides. And they do not educate the children who attend them, who are mostly poor and from minority families. The worst nightmares of those who oppose segregated schools are fulfilled by the public school system as it now operates. At best we have institutionalized mediocrity. At worst we have exacerbated the cycle of poverty and deprivation.

Vouchers provides at least the potential of a way out for some families. That is why, I believe, many families and leaders from minority communities are now actively and vigorously supporting them. As I said earlier, the proposal I am considering, and which I think Jewish leaders should actively support, is one which provides to parents the equivalent of the cost of educating their children in the public schools. (Schools qualifying for vouchers would be certified, thus not removing state discretion completely - something some will see as a safeguard and others will see as a drawback.) At least this way parents would have a choice and schools would start to be accountable to them. The usual objection at this stage is that two things would happen. One, those parents who could afford to "top up" (add to) the value of the voucher would take their kids to private schools in the more affluent areas. Two, if even the poorer parents armed with a voucher pulled their kids, the public school system would collapse. There would be nowhere for some kids to go, especially those with special leaning needs. In answer to the first objection I wonder how much more segregated the system could become. I suspect actually that with a voucher system schools would become less segregated, not more segregated, as kids from the poorer neighborhoods take their vouchers to schools of their choice. In answer to the second, and more important, objection one must appeal to the breaking out of our current mindset. Let me explain.

When schools are accountable to parents, who have many thousands of dollars of potential revenue for the them, the extent and type of response that might develop is literally unimaginable. The variety of schools of many types, sizes, qualities and specialties (including those for special needs children) is likely to be very large. There is likely to be a high degree of innovation in educational styles (responding to parents who have different opinions and desires in relation to aspects of educational philosophy), and a high degree of dynamism in educational development. Schools will most likely be smaller, safer and more enjoyable. There will be fewer administrators per child, more (and better-performing) teachers per child.

I believe in this scenario because I believe that, in general, parents want the best for their children and that competition through the educational market will work to give it to them. But even if, as you read this, you are thinking this is "pie in the sky," ask yourself "how could it be worse than it is now?!!" The standard to hold any proposed alternative to is not perfection, it is relative improvement. I donít see how giving parents of children a choice between schools could make them worse off, even if it does not provide the utopia that we would all like to see. Not surprisingly those most opposed to a voucher system of any kind are the powerful teachersí unions supported in part by the administrative educational establishment, but theirsí is hardly a disinterested position.

    So, it is on this basis that I say to Jewish leaders and all those who would support the cause of Jewish day school education, that we should support the arguments for introducing vouchers not only with a clear conscience, but with enthusiasm and conviction that vouchers serve not only our parochial cultural cause but the greater goal of tikun olam for all the children of our nation. And I am convinced that unless there is some chink in the public school monopoly we will never achieve the kind of expansion of demand for Jewish day schools that we need for it to be a real factor in Jewish survival and in the achievement of real alternatives in Jewish education. (I know that most Jews live in the New York city area and that the public schools there have historically served them well. But I also know that the Jewish community there is much more spread out now and that this generation is, like Jews in the rest of the nation, drifting further from their roots and their heritage. So what I have said applies, I believe, to New York Jews as well.)

I am not naÔve enough to think that any such conversion of Jewish sentiment is likely or immanent, or that even if it were, that the vested interests in opposition to school choice are likely to be soon or easily overcome. But stranger things have happened and over time, bit by bit, if we can get leaders and others to at least think about it, who knows what might come to pass.

Peter Lewin.