“I support school choice,” said candidate Rick Scott, the former health care magnate and now Florida’s new governor. Since winning the election, Scott has started to flesh out the details of his education policy. His plan is to have the state give parents as much as $5,800 for each of their school-age children in the form of a voucher that can be used to pay tuition at virtually any school they wish. With the Republican and Tea Party sweep of the Sunshine State’s legislature, it will take a miracle — or the courts — to stop the school voucher freight train.
Florida’s Jews now face a quandary.
On the one hand, this voucher scheme would give Jewish parents significant sums of money that they could apply toward paying Jewish day school tuition. We can reasonably expect that many students who took advantage of vouchers to enroll in Jewish day schools would have their Jewish identities enhanced. Our day schools would be strengthened by an influx of students and would become the centers of Jewish life for many families.
For these reasons, Governor Scott’s proposal will surely be tempting to many in our community. But there is also a more problematic side for Florida’s Jews to consider.
For starters, this voucher program could fundamentally change the character of Jewish schools that choose to participate. Given the well-deserved reputations of many Jewish day schools as outstanding institutions of secular as well as religious learning, will non-Jewish families — vouchers for $5,800 per child in hand — appear at their doors seeking admission? Would admissions officials be legally permitted to turn them away on the basis of their religion? If not, what happens when the fraction of non-Jewish students in a Jewish day school becomes sizable? For a cautionary tale, we can look across the ocean to Britain, where Jewish schools receive state funding and have been forced by courts to jettison traditional definitions of Jewish identity in their admissions practices.
Of course, most Floridians who decide to take advantage of vouchers will not be enrolling their children in Jewish schools. But what types of schools will they be choosing, and what will their children be taught?
One could easily imagine such a voucher system resulting in Florida’s taxpayers being forced to fund private and religious schools teaching things that would make many of us deeply uncomfortable. What if Florida’s Jews found themselves paying a portion of the tuition for a young student to sit in a school that offers a Bible class in which children are taught that Jews “killed God”? Would we be called upon to underwrite a school in which the world history class teaches that Palestinian terror against Israelis is justified? Florida’s citizens have little recourse if a private school decides to promote ideas that are repugnant or even hateful. Under a voucher scheme, they could be required to subsidize the teaching of such ideas.
It is for good reason that Florida’s constitution calls for “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.” Our tax dollars should be used to further that noble vision, not to fund sectarian religious education.
We in the Jewish community are rightly proud of our day schools, just as members of other faiths are justifiably proud of their educational institutions. It’s understandable that we would be tempted by the allure of public money to increase enrollments in our Jewish schools.
But we should be wary of promises of free money. Vouchers come with a price. Vouchers could compromise the autonomy of our religious schools, while forcing us to subsidize agendas that are anathema to our values and undermine the social fabric. That is a price that is simply too high, for Florida, for its Jewish community and for our nation.
Rabbi Merrill Shapiro is president of the board of trustees of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.