The organized Jewish community—whether local Jewish community relations councils or national groups like the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League—and the religious denominations say they’re committed to two positions.
On the one hand, all of them purport to be strong supporters of social justice, which is to say that they are, at least in principle, in favor of helping poor children and families, regardless of their background, race or religion, break the cycle of poverty and succeed by getting an education.
On the other, they also claim to support strengthening their own community’s future by promoting those programs and institutions, including schools, which provide resources for Jewish families that give children the best possible chance to learn about their heritage, faith and its spiritual center in Israel.
Yet almost all of these Jewish groups are willing to go to the mat to oppose measures that would aid both of these causes. Indeed, they consider that they are defending both social justice and the Jewish future by doing so, even though the impact of their stands is the polar opposite of their alleged goals.
By this, I refer to their opposition to school choice programs, which mainstream liberal Jewish groups oppose. These organizations regard anything that diverts taxpayer dollars towards private, and especially religious, schools as undermining the public education system and a breach of the “wall of separation” between church and state that these groups have glorified for the last century as the best defense of Jewish rights.
Their extreme separationist views about the Constitution are rooted in a past in which Jews perceived their interests to be linked to a desire to strip the public square of all religious beliefs. Fears of domination or persecution by Christians were not entirely unreasonable in the early 20th century when a largely immigrant community was still accustomed to thinking that religiosity on the part of their non-Jewish neighbors would lead inevitably to persecution, as was the case in Europe. It was also true that anti-Semitism among mainstream Christian denominations was more commonplace than it is today. At the same time, most of those Jewish immigrants also looked to public schools as irreplaceable elements of a system that enabled their children to become educated and succeed in ways that led them to become both prosperous and secure.
But however wise those stands may have seemed 70, 80 or 90 years ago, they no longer make sense. Indeed, the organized Jewish world’s fealty to both separationism and the public-school ideal is bad for social justice and just as bad for the Jews themselves.
That’s why a reasonable Jewish community would be celebrating the passage last week of the first fully accessible statewide school choice program ever instituted in the United States by the Arizona legislature. The bill expands an existing Empowerment Scholarship Account program that had previously only been open to use by small numbers of families into one that served all of the state’s families and children.
These accounts help families by giving them money that might otherwise simply be passed on to public schools and letting them decide how to use it, whether for private or religious school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online courses or educational therapy. Funding will follow the student rather than be devoted to districts regardless of the quality of the schools.
It bears pointing out that the $6,600 each student will have in their account is far less than the $11,000 Arizona spends on each child who attends public school, not to mention the federal funds that also can be added to that total. But rather than impoverishing government schools, this program will ensure that they will not be shortchanged, thanks to a massive increase in education allocations by the legislature. Every time a student leaves a public school, that school will also get an additional $600, therefore ensuring that it can spend more per pupil.
More important is what this scheme will do for families and kids. While the wealthy can choose schools that best suit their children’s needs regardless of cost, poor families are often stuck in underperforming and failing government schools. The scholarships will change that and give everyone a chance to choose whatever classroom, regardless of whether it’s a public charter, private or religious school—or to homeschool—and be far less likely to be priced out.
In this system, the best schools will be rewarded while those that are failing their children will be punished by having families vote with their feet. In the same way, the competition this will foster will push public schools to be better, instead of being complacent bureaucracies that are essentially unaccountable to the people that use them.
This is the most progressive idea possible since it will give those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder the same opportunities heretofore reserved for those at the top.
The benefits for the Jewish community are just as obvious.
In an era when Jews are drifting away from their faith and peoplehood, full-time Jewish day schools that provide both secular and religious learning are the most effective tool for ensuring the community’s future. It’s true that many secular Jews couldn’t be paid to send their kids to a Jewish school, but many others are shut out because of the price.
Jewish schools are expensive propositions, and the costs of sending even one child to such a place, let alone two or three, is prohibitive. While the wealthy can simply write a check and the very poor can get scholarships, middle-class Jewish families have often been squeezed out of the best Jewish education possible. The state’s empowerment scholarships will change that and make day schools more affordable for the entire community.
Yet the groups that purport to represent most Jews are still bitterly opposed to school choice because they think public dollars should never fund religious schools.
Part of this is simply a function of partisan politics. Liberals back the teacher’s unions that believe the maintenance of a functional government monopoly over the schools is good for their members. The defeat of school choice is a victory for those who resist accountability for both schools and teachers. And since the teacher’s unions are among the nation’s largest donors to the Democrats, they can rely on politicians who take their money to shut down every avenue for choice.
Added to this is a belief by many in the educational establishment that more choice undermines their efforts to spread toxic leftist doctrines like critical race theory and the indoctrination of ideas about sex and gender that many parents oppose.
The notion that religious schools are antithetical to the American tradition of public education is a post-World War II innovation that has nothing to do with the intent of the country’s founders or what is best for children. That these mainstream groups stick to this position in spite of their community’s clear interest in making day schools affordable is another indication of how ideology means more to them than the best outcomes for Jewish families and children.
But even if we took the day schools out of the equation, the push for school choice, which was given a boost by pandemic conditions that forced parents to confront the way public systems and teachers’ unions were indifferent if not actually hostile to the needs of children, Jewish opposition to this bill would still be deeply wrong.
These groups need to be reminded that poor children who would benefit from choice are made in the image of God the same as the children of the wealthy, including the upper-middle-class Jewish liberals who are most opposed to an idea that would help the underprivileged.
The Arizona bill is a template that should be adopted by other states. Yet it is also a test of whether mainstream Jewish groups truly are as dedicated to social justice and the future of American Jewry as they say they are. Given their continued opposition to this educational breakthrough, it’s painfully obvious that they are failing badly.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.