By Howie Beigelman
Everyone knows the Orthodox community supports school reform for “parochial” reasons — the strain on our household budgets from multiple tuitions at Jewish day school.
But Orthodox support is about far more. It’s about Jewish values. The poor and near poor in our society are trapped in failing schools. That’s not right or fair.
That was also the message of 900 students — many from minority communities or from failing school districts — with whom I and others, including students from Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station joined in Harrisburg last week to lobby for school choice.
Our community proudly remembers marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and rightly boasts of standing up for the needy and oppressed — even a world away. But there’s a civil rights issue right here at home. Education is the most critical civil rights issue, the most burning social justice question, of the 21st century.
Ensuring that every child, regardless of zip code or parent’s income, accesses a quality education shouldn’t be controversial. And it no longer is. In our hyper-partisan era, education reform has liberals and conservatives agreeing. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch and President Ronald Reagan agreed decades ago. Today President Barack Obama, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, and Mayors Michael Bloomberg of New York and Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles agree.
The Orthodox Union supports school reform and choice in all forms — charters, public choice and government funding (in constitutionally permissible ways) of private — even parochial — schools, including scholarships, tax credits and vouchers.
This support is based on deeply Jewish values– education and social justice. Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, writes, “Our citadels are schools, our passion, education, and our greatest heroes, teachers.” The prophets long ago beat into our national psyche the Torah’s charge to be a light unto the nations, act justly and help the poor. As Jews who care as we do about tikkun olam, forcing children in failing schools is anathema.
Moreover, the Jewish community’s experiences prove that government funding can support critical needs through nonprofit or private providers delivering results. Tax dollars fund Jewish federation hospitals, day care, senior facilities, soup kitchens, food pantries and more. Why shouldn’t government also support all secular K-12 education?
Some say that choice violates the U.S. Constitution.
Thirty-nine state constitutions, including Pennsylvania’s, have a religious “no aid” provision, or Blaine amendment. (Congressman James Blaine fueled his 19th century run for the presidency with anti-Catholic bigotry that hoped to amend the U.S. Constitution to bar public funding of sectarian — read Catholic — institutions. Although his effort to amend the U.S. Constitution failed, many individual states took on the measure.
However, most aid programs are crafted to stand up to scrutiny under the Blaine amendment, including Pennsylvania’s EITC program that raises millions for Jewish education.
And the federal courts have ruled that neutrally crafted choice programs that include religious schools are constitutionally kosher and well within the boundaries of vigorous first amendment protections promoting religious liberty
So the question isn’t a now long-settled legal one, but a policy one: Is school choice and reform good policy?
Some suggest the results are unproven. But the research is in. These reforms work.
Professor Paul E. Peterson, who directs Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, (no conservative bastion) recently wrote on the Education Next blog that study after study shows us “that schools of choice are compiling a consistently better record than that of traditional public schools.”
Sure, we who care about Jewish education, days schools and continuity will likely support constitutionally permitted choice. But all who care about creating a fairer, more equal society for every child must advocate for education reforms that have results today.
Howie Beigelman is the Orthodox Union’s Deputy Director of Public Policy, responsible for the group’s state government affairs nationally.