Forward contributing editor Jay Michaelson is acutely exercised over President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as the nation’s next Secretary of Education. Writing in these pages, he echoes teachers’ unions by sounding the alarm that DeVos, a school choice advocate, aims to destroy American public schools.
Michaelson also asserts that “the agenda of the DeVos family foundations is to re-Christianize America” and to replace “the gorgeous mosaic of our current secular society with… [a] white-dominated, Christian-dominated” society, and that states with voucher programs in place have shown no benefits in educational outcomes, and in fact have led to “disastrous results.” Oh, and that Orthodox Jewish groups who support school choice are “fools” and “modern-day Esaus, exchanging the birthright of American democracy for a bowl of voucher porridge,” because educational vouchers will benefit struggling Jewish schools.
Where to start? Well, the beginning is probably best.
Competition in the form of nonpublic educational options does not threaten the public school system. What it does is mitigate the public school system’s effective monopoly on education — and that’s a healthy thing.
Competition is a threat only to inferior products. Choices, in any market, are invariably a boon to quality and to the consumer.
No fewer than 30 empirical studies have examined the impact of private school choice on academic outcomes in public schools. And no fewer than 29 found that school choice improved the performance of nearby public schools. (One study found no significant effects.) No study has found that school choice harms students in public schools.
I don’t have a conduit into DeVos’s heart and so cannot counter Michaelson’s claims as to her “agenda.” But I can share some publicly available information, like the fact that featured speakers at the 2016 summit of the American Federation for Children, an advocacy organization chaired by DeVos, included Senator Cory Booker and two other African Americans; Joe Lieberman; two Hispanic women, and a Native American state senator.
And I can share the fact that the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation has funded an educational program, “Bridges at School,” that seeks to “contextualize[e] the Arab World and provid[e] a unique series of both critical thinking and creative exercises that shed light on the rich historical, scientific, mathematical, religious and cultural legacy of the region.”
None of this dovetails very smoothly with the desideratum of a “white-dominated, Christian-dominated” society.
As for the track record of voucher programs: Although only longer-term studies will offer conclusive information, according to a comprehensive evaluation of Milwaukee’s voucher program, students enrolled in the program were more likely to graduate from high school and go to college than their public school counterparts. They also boasted significantly improved reading scores and represented a more diverse cross-section of the city.
Plus, data published by the Ohio Department of Education revealed that Ohio students receiving vouchers performed considerably better on the reading assessment in comparison to the results of comparable district students.
The truth, though, is that whether or not vouchers prove a panacea for the shortcomings of some public schools is entirely beside the point. The case for providing parents with educational options rests less on hopes for intensified achievement than on the straightforward justice of allowing mothers and fathers to choose how their children are educated.
Parents’ ability to give their children an education that reflects their own principles and ideals — even if those principles and ideals may differ from those cherished by certain Forward columnists — is, or should be, nothing less than a civil right.
To insist that the American educational norm be limited to a set of particular points of view runs counter to the very notion of personal freedom. Indeed, trying, by economic deprivation (that is, withholding education-directed tax dollars paid by citizens from those citizens’ educational needs), to prevent parents from giving their kids a well-rounded education that reflects their sincere and deep-seated beliefs, be they secular or religious, is nothing short of educational totalitarianism.
That Christian parents, Muslim parents or secular parents will choose schools for their kids that reflect their personal values doesn’t threaten me, and shouldn’t. Nor should it intimidate any truly liberal-minded person.
The bottom line: Americans have increasingly come to realize that there is no reason that parents — all parents — should not have the final say, without penalty, as to where their children are educated. In a pluralistic society like ours, all parents have a right to raise their children as they see fit, within the bounds of law, instilling in them the values they hold dear. In Judaism, and surely in other belief systems and philosophies, that is not only a right, but also a deep responsibility.
There’s no cynical pot of porridge here, only the American melting pot, the “gorgeous mosaic” that Michaelson himself celebrates.
Avi Shafran, who received a classic Orthodox Jewish yeshiva education, serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs, blogs at rabbiavishafran.com and writes for a broad array of media.