(March 8, 2023 / JNS) Don’t expect a flood of Jewish families moving to Arkansas in the wake of the state legislature there passing a bill this week that charts a path towards universal school choice. When Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders affixes her signature to the Arkansas Learns Act, it will make her state the fifth to enact legislation that allows state funds to follow students enabling parents to choose whatever school is the best fit for their children.
Arizona was the first state to do so last year and since then West Virginia, Utah and Iowa have also passed such laws. A combination of Republican-controlled legislatures and Republican governors in Florida, Oklahoma, Indiana and perhaps Texas could join them this year, further expanding the number of places where government-run schools are no longer granted a virtual monopoly over education.
This raises a host of questions about the future of education, as well as ensures that the debate about school choice will only grow more heated as opponents realize that the political tide is turning against them. It will also heighten the partisan divide in the country as blue states dominated by Democrats continue to oppose these measures.
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Yet it also raises an interesting possibility. The continued flourishing of Jewish life in the United States is increasingly dependent on the ability of communities to support schools that can give children comprehensive Jewish and secular education. The states where most Jews currently live, such as New York, New Jersey and California, continue to oppose school-choice measures that will make it easier for Jewish education to thrive. But might many Jews—or at least the critical minority that are ready to prioritize expensive day-school education—start moving to red states where choice laws make it easier for them to educate their children in the manner they deem most appropriate?
We’ve already seen a massive population shift from blue states like New York and California to Florida and Texas in order to escape the dead hand of COVID regulations. But does that mean Jews would be ready to go to places like Arkansas, where few of their brethren currently live?
The school-choice revolution has been decades in the making as activists and parents have been stymied by the enormous power of both the educational bureaucracy and the political clout of the teacher’s unions, which are determined to limit the ability of parents to opt out of public schools. That changed after the pandemic-related lockdown. Schools were unnecessarily closed by panicked and ill-informed government officials, and kept that way by unions long after even the flimsiest arguments claiming children or teachers were at any special risk were debunked.
The pandemic also provided another game-changer in this fight because what parents saw when they were able to observe their children taking online classes shocked many into action. Throughout the nation, Americans observed how woke leftist ideology had been insinuated into curricula trashing American history, racializing every discussion and sexualizing even the youngest children.
That provoked a backlash of angry parents that scared the Biden administration into potentially weaponizing the Justice Department against anyone who dared to dissent against the new secular religion of critical race theory and the woke catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion. While liberal talking heads and politicians gaslighted the nation claiming that critical race theory wasn’t being taught in the schools, those paying attention to public and even many elite private institutions knew they were lying.
The irony is that while opposing these toxic ideologies ought to be a Jewish priority, the legacy organizations that purport to represent the interests of the community are all opposed to them on partisan and ideological grounds. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism are all devoutly opposed to choice because they fear that any government assistance to religious schools would violate the separation of church and state.
The inordinate fear of religion in public life is a relic of a bygone era when Jews worried about being bullied in public schools because of their minority status. Few who cling to this position are aware of the history of this debate, which has its roots in religious bias. Throughout the first century of American history, state aid to religious schools was routine. The passage of so-called “Blaine laws” (after Maine Sen. James G. Blaine) in states was a function of anti-Catholic prejudice since the Protestant majority was opposed to any assistance to institutions linked to the pope.
Jews today are welcome in every sector of American life. But the public schools their liberal politicians and organizations venerate are now working against, rather than for, Jewish interests since the woke intersectional faith of CRT grants a permission slip to antisemitism, as it views Jews and the State of Israel as beneficiaries of “white privilege.”
Moreover, Jewish life would specifically benefit from laws that would make it easier for parents to afford and choose day schools—the best possible Jewish-educational option. A culture of choice would make it easier to operate Jewish schools and potentially increase enrollment.
But even if we leave day schools out of the equation, the liberal majority of American Jewry that regards social justice as synonymous with Judaism ought to embrace choice for another reason.
School choice offers minority families whose children are trapped in failing schools an escape route that many wealthier American Jews already have. Limousine liberals who routinely send their kids to the best schools, whether secular or parochial, have always been prepared to tell the children of the poor to shift for themselves. If that means they have to stay in urban schools where little is taught, then so much the worse for them. Despite all the talk about tikkun olam and the need to “repair the world” from liberal Jewish groups, they support policies that seem to indicate that they don’t really believe the children of the poor are made in the image of God the same as theirs are.
Still, the critical mass of American Jewry that is interested in seeing Judaism and Jewish families thrive is dependent on day schools. If the country is increasingly split into red and blue enclaves, then it will only make sense that more of them will move to places where Jewish schools are more affordable. As hard as it might be for many to imagine a Jewish population shift from blue states to red ones, it makes perfect sense that more Jewish families might start doing just that.
That isn’t likely to mean that Little Rock will replace New York as America’s greatest Jewish city. But it will likely mean even more Jewish growth in places like Arizona and Florida as the demography of the community shifts away from places where it is increasingly harder for Jews, or anyone else for that matter, to live.
No one can predict the future but in the next half-century, as assimilation takes an increasingly heavier toll on Jewish life in the United States, with fewer people affiliating with the community or giving their children a Jewish education, school choice may loom large in determining where and how those who still want to be Jewish plan to make their homes.
Though leftists and separationist extremists don’t want to see it, school choice is the true civil-rights issue of the 21st century and ultimately may be one of the levers that complete a political realignment in which minorities are no longer in thrall to the political left. At the same time, the woke assault on Western civilization and its history, philosophy, literature and art provide other compelling reasons for Jews and others to seek alternatives to schools in which the CRT dogma is the new state religion. Jews, who are the particular targets of wokeness, need to join the fight to expand school choice everywhere.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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