What’s good for America is good for its Jews.
That’s the common and rosy assumption, anyhow. American economic progress lifts Jewish boats, too. America’s embrace of diversity legitimates everyone’s particular story. And even if Jews have appeared to act against their narrow interests — displaying the tendency to “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” as essayist Milton Himmelfarb once put it — we benefit in the long run, by enabling a more just and prosperous society.
The debate over federally funded school vouchers, however, tests this assumption.
From a parochial perspective (pardon the pun), snagging even a sliver of the $20 billion in federal funding that President Trump has promised to divert to private schools under the banner of “choice” could be a game changer for Jewish day school education. This is especially true for Orthodox Jews, who generally shun public schools for religious and social reasons, but not exclusively. Prizmah, the new umbrella organization representing a variety of day schools, recently posted a journal article urging its members to campaign for vouchers.
“If the Jewish community were to successfully engage in a long-term lobbying campaign — along with other parochial and private schools of many different faiths — to increase government funding of all private schools, the possible upside would be huge,” wrote Michael Broyde, a law professor at Emory University.
The controversial poster child of vouchers, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (pictured above), taints the current conversation about funding schools. Her suspect credentials, disdain for public education and disastrous confirmation hearings before Congress made her easy to oppose. Indeed, she secured her cabinet position only thanks to Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote, the first time that’s happened in U.S. history.
Alone among Jewish groups, Orthodox leaders embraced DeVos, and she quickly returned their love just weeks into her tenure, at a well-publicized meetingMarch 8 with Agudath Israel of America, the organization that represents much of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
But while Orthodox groups are the most vocal champions for government funding, proponents across the political spectrum have taken up the cause, including my Forward colleague Peter Beinart. Backers of vouchers point to the staggering cost of religious education (a day school such as The Abraham Joshua Heschel School can cost more than $40,000 per year per child) and to its unassailable positive outcomes, and compare the paltry percentage of American Jews receiving this kind of schooling with the more robust numbers in countries where government funds religious schools, including the United Kingdom and Australia,.
Federal subsidies would likely attract more students and stabilize more schools. Given the rightward tilt of the courts on this issue, the law could probably be written around the constitutional requirement that government refrain from advancing or inhibiting religion, as set forth in what’s known as the “Lemon test,” after a landmark Supreme Court case in 1971.
From a narrowly Jewish perspective, this could seem like a good deal.
But for America? Not so much. Even if federal legislation could be contorted enough to pass legal muster, directing billions toward religious schools sure sounds like a breach of the separation of religion and state. Another breach, actually.
Already, public monies pay for transporting students to religious schools, and for their textbooks, and, in certain cases, for special education teachers. Remember, the vast majority of the private schools currently receiving some sort of subsidy from state programs are religious in nature. How does scaling up this program not advance religion?
I worry if there are no strings attached to these vouchers, and therefore no accountability for how taxpayer money is spent. I also worry if there are strings — and an invitation to government entanglement, one of the other negative consequences the so-called “Lemon test” is designed to prevent. For an example of the dangers of such entanglement, consider what happened in London a few years ago, when the courts were asked to decidewhether a student in a government-subsidized Jewish school was, really, a Jew. I want to avoid that kind of meddling here.
Important though they are, these concerns are largely abstract. Educational outcomes matter more. For years now, proponents of vouchers have pointed to studies showing that “school choice” improves student performance and academic achievement.
But, as The New York Times recently reported, “a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling — the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.”
One of those recent studies was released by a conservative think tank and funded by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, an operation formed by the clan behind Wal-Mart. Nonetheless, it found that students in a large voucher program in Ohio fared worse academically in comparison with peers in public schools.
Even if vouchers served a narrow Jewish interest, there is mounting evidence that they do not serve the broader national interest. And there’s reason to question the first part of that sentence.
Most of the students in Jewish schools attend Orthodox yeshivas, where the level of secular education is often lackluster or nonexistent. Funneling public funding to these schools without oversight only increases the chance that Jews will graduate without the academic skills to compete in the modern workplace.
Voucher programs will never be a long-term solution to what ails American education; there simply are not enough seats in private schools to replace public classrooms, and the promise that competition will force broader improvements has simply not materialized.
Instead of seeking government assistance, let’s support our own education ourselves and work to strengthen the public sphere for everyone. That will be good for the Jews — and good for America.
Contact Jane Eisner at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.