Rabbi Avi Shafran
Torah.org remains committed to the avoidance of divisive
Jewish political battles, especially between the denominations. However, we
strongly favor Jewish education, and recognize that Jewish Day Schools --
especially Jewish High Schools -- are the single most successful method of
developing a lifelong dedication to Judaism and Jewish affiliation. Given that
the words of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the UAHC, mean a great deal to a
great many Jews, we decided publication of this critique was appropriate. It
is a criticism of his words, not of the movement he leads.
In a sermon delivered to attendees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations Biennial Convention, UAHC President Rabbi Eric Yoffie declared
that he is "embarrassed and ashamed" at the
fact that there are Jewish groups among the proponents of school choice.
He declared that educational vouchers would greatly harm the nation's public schools; invoked the First Amendment's mandate to maintain a strict mechitza (separation) between church and state; predicted that school choice will not educationally benefit students; and contended that the Talmud itself endorses public education.
What scandalized him above all, though, was what he characterized as the "naked self-interest dressed up as caring" inherent in the position of Jews who support school choice.
Well, while we are sorry to embarrass the rabbi, those of us in the Jewish community who look forward to the day when all tax-paying parents will be able to choose their children's schools must respectfully differ.
Competition is indeed a threat - to the manufacturers of inferior products. Choices, however, are always a boon to quality, and to the consumer. Should parents one day be provided with true educational options for their children, some public schools may indeed wither away from lack of interest. But education - and students, its consumers - will only benefit. And public schools that do the job they are supposed to do will surely continue to thrive.
The constitutionality of vouchers may make for interesting legal debate, but as long as the issue remains an open one, it ought not be injected into the policy debate. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this spring on an existent voucher program in Cleveland. If it rules against the program on constitutional grounds, the Rabbi need not fret; no amount of voucher proponents' arguments will be able to change the law. And if the Court rules that the program does not violate the First Amendment, then such programs are, by definition, constitutional, whatever the rabbi may wish.
Whether school choice can be demonstrated to boost student achievement is at present still unresolved - although there is already strong evidence suggesting its potential. But increased public support for educational options, in the end, is based less on hopes for intensified achievement than on the straightforward justice inherent in allowing parents to choose how their children are raised.
That characterization is not an exaggeration. Education is much more than the transfer of information, much more, even, than training minds to think. It is the imparting of attitudes, ideals and values as well, particularly today, when so often both parents (when there even are two) are working (sometimes at multiple jobs), and when children (even when they are at home) are regularly left to their own devices (and those of the virtual child-molesters we call the electronic media). It would be folly to deny that schools mold minds. And only Jewish schools can mold Jewish minds.
Particularly disturbing is the sinister accusation of voucher proponents' self-interest. The very same charge, however, could be leveled against any labor union promoting laws to protect its workers, any business group supporting legislation benefiting employers - not to mention against Jews who support any of a host of causes, from Israel's security to social security. Members of a group banding together to promote their legitimate collective interests is an essential feature of democracy, and should evoke neither umbrage nor insult.
In the case of school choice, the benefit to Jews involves nothing less than the American Jewish future.
Both reason and a half-century of experience informs us that the single most vital instruments for instilling Jewish identity, values and ideals in young Jews today are institutions like day schools that determinedly teach the Jewish tradition and impart authentic Jewish ideals.
Many such Jewish schools, though, are direly strapped for cash. Most are unable to spend anywhere near as much on each of their students (according to one expert, often less than half) as their neighboring public schools spend on each of theirs. Vouchers would allow such schools not only to better serve their charges but to attract Jewish parents who would otherwise never consider a Jewish education for their children.
If the next Jewish generation's familiarity with its religious heritage really means anything to us American Jews, if all our hand-wringing over Jewish continuity is anything more than cultural theater, then, with all due respect, we must recognize - and without shame - that educational choice may be an important component of ensuring the future of Jewish America.
Some may see the seeds of that future germinating in the embrace of the most restrictive interpretation of the First Amendment; others, in communal embrace of non-Jews married to Jews; others still, in outright proselytization of the unchurched.
But those sensitive to the Jewish historical experience know that where it truly lies is precisely where it has lain for the millennia of our history as a people: in the "public education" cited by the Rabbi from the Talmud, which refers not to math and science but rather to the transmission of our holy Jewish tradition to our young.
The effort to use every legal means possible to achieve that goal should be a source of not shame but deep Jewish pride.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs of Agudath Israel of America.