It’s campaign season in the US, and one of the issues that comes up during every campaign is “school choice.” “School choice” is a code word for school voucher programs, through which money would be taken away from public schools and given to private schools instead. In other words, under a school voucher program, if parents choose to send their children to private schools, the government takes some or all of the money allocated to the public schools they would otherwise have attended and gives it to their private schools instead.
Many Jews support the idea of school choice. This is a mistake, and here’s why…
Here are my “credentials” for writing about school choice: My wife and I have five children, and we intend for all of them to attend Jewish day schools. We pay literally tens of thousands of dollars each year in day-school tuition, and we expect to have to keep doing that for at least the next eighteen years. Thank God, the school we have chosen for our children gives us substantial financial aid, but even with that aid, it is still hard for us to afford. A school voucher program would be a huge financial win for our family. Nevertheless, both my wife and I believe that the creation of such a program would be bad for the Jewish community and bad for the community at large, and we strongly oppose it.
We Jews living in America do not live in a vacuum. Our Jewish communities are part of larger American communities, and the health and well-being of those larger communities have a direct impact on ours. When crime goes up in the larger community, crime goes up in our community. When there are fewer jobs available for people in the larger community, there are fewer jobs for the people in our community. When the economy suffers in the larger community, the economy suffers in our community as well. When ignorance leads to bigotry and anti-Semitism in the larger community, we feel that directly in our community when the bigotry and anti-Semitism are directed against us.
A decent education system is the single biggest factor influencing the long-term health of any community. The value of education is deeply ingrained in the Jewish culture and religion. It is not a coincidence that we are known as the “people of the book”, or that throughout history our children have been well-educated, often when children in the communities around them have remained ignorant. Also deeply ingrained in our religion are the idea that we are responsible for improving the whole world, not just our own communities, and the idea that we should be a light among the nations, leading them through our own behavior to a higher level.
Just as we know that a good education is critically important for our own children, so we must also know that a good education is critically important for children in the larger communities of which we are a part.
The public-education system in our country is in crisis. Yes, there are good public schools, but there are also many bad ones. Lack of money is not the only reason why some public schools are in crisis, nor even the most significant reason. However, taking money away from those schools will make them worse, not better. Advocates for school vouchers argue that such programs would incentivize public schools to improve, to lure back the students who have left. However, that is not, in reality, what will happen, because many of the problems that plague our public schools are problems that simply cannot be solved without government intervention. In short, school voucher programs will make our public schools worse. Not only will this have a negative impact on Jewish American communities, but it is antithetical to Jewish values.
There is another important reason why Jews should oppose school vouchers. Do you want your tax dollars to fund schools where students are taught how to proselytize Jews to convert to other religions? Do you want your tax dollars to fund schools where students are taught that America is the Great Satan and Israel should be wiped off the map? Do you want your tax dollars to fund schools where avoda zara, i.e., idol worship which Jews are prohibited from engaging in or supporting in any way, is taught and practiced? These are not idle, theoretical questions. There are schools in America teaching these things, and should a school voucher program be enacted in this country, those schools will be just as entitled to tax dollars as Jewish schools.
Wherever government money flows, government control is sure to follow. Do you want the government to have a say in the administration and curriculum of the Jewish schools where you send your children?
So, if school choice is bad for America and bad for the Jews, then how do we solve the problem that many Jewish children are growing up with an inadequate Jewish education because their parents cannot afford to send them to private school?
The answer to this question is simple… We, as a community, are responsible for ensuring that our schools are affordable to all. Rather than the current model of forcing every school to do its own fund-raising, thus duplicating effort and resources and forcing all the schools to compete against each other for donations, we should follow the example of the communities in which all Jewish schools are heavily supported by the Jewish Federation or its equivalent, and the tuitions of all schools are thus greatly reduced. This is not fantasy. It’s a model which has been successful in a number of American Jewish communities, and it is one we should emulate. It is worth noting that under a model like this, the total dollars available for Jewish education actually increases, because the lower tuitions allow some parents to give more in total by turning part of what they give from tuition, which is not tax-deductible, into a donation, which is.
In the absence of such a program, what can a family do if they want to give their children a quality Jewish education but find it difficult to afford the tuition? There are a number of options, including:
- First and foremost, ask the school for help. All of the schools in our community offer tuition assistance for families who need it. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
- Ask the school for information about local organizations which can provide additional assistance.
- Ask the school for information about local and national organizations which provide low-interest loans for private school tuition.
- Engage the services of a financial planner to assist you in finding ways to restructure your finances.
- Prioritize. Recognize the importance of a good Jewish education for your children, and look for ways you can reduce your spending in other areas to make it affordable.
- The cost of a Jewish education varies from place to place, and should be one of the factors you consider when deciding where to raise your children. If a Jewish education is not affordable where you are currently moving, you may need to seriously consider moving. And, of course, there’s always the option of making aliya, since religious schools in Israel are public schools and hence are tuition-free.
In short, “school choice” is bad for America and bad for the Jews, and there are other, better ways to make our schools affordable to ourselves and all members of our community.
Though it wasn’t the primary reason for our aliyah, the looming prospect of day school tuition certainly helped sway our timing. In particular, at some point I realized that the estimated startup cost of aliyah, including the pilot trip, packing and shipping our belongings, and getting settled in a new country was comparable to, in fact a bit less, than the tuition for one year of kindergarten at Maimo for one child.
Note though that even in Israel there are a lot of semi-private schools that charge tuition to offer services above the governmental standard, and many Western Olim send there kids to these schools. But these schools still get state money, so the tuition for these schools is usually a pittance compared to the US. (I think the most expensive tuition I have seen is around 1000 shekels a month, maybe a bit more, which is less than $3K for the year (though approaching that as the dollar falls), and most places are quite a bit less).
On your main point, I agree with you that the US (Frum) Jewish community’s tendency to support vouchers does seem shortsighted.
There is no difference between tax credits and school vouchers. From the parents’ point of view, it means that it costs them less to send their kids to private school. From the private schools’ point of view, it means that they get the same amount of money per student. From the government’s point of view, it means that they are spending money to support private schools (it never ceases to amaze me how many people don’t understand that a tax credit is the same as the government spending money) and thus reducing the amount of money they have to spend on other things, including the public schools. From the public schools’ point of view, students are encouraged to flee the public schools and hence their enrollment drops and their budgets are slashed. And finally, from the point of view of other taxpayers, they are being forced to subsidize private schools whose curricula they may find morally and religiously objectionable.
It’s patently absurd to claim that the government “saves money” by giving people tax credits to send their kids to private schools. That’s just ridiculous.
I’d take a closer look at those bills. Some are tuition tax credits–totally different ballgame. With a privately funded scholarship pool, and a 3-4K tax credit for the financially strapped to send their children to a private school, the state actually saves the difference of several thousand it usually spends per-pupil, and that can be invested back into public schools that aren’t doing so hot. School choice is a pretty broad set of options, including that which you already exercise, including homeschooling and online classes. School choice, in that sense, seems to me to benefit both kids in private schools and those in public schools, especially those that struggle financially.