School Choice in the Capital; A Proposal for Opportunity the Jewish Community Should Support
By Nathan J. Diament
Washington Jewish Week, July 10, 1997
Recently, in the shadow of the Capitol dome, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex), Senators Dan Coats (R-In) and Joe Lieberman (D-Ct) joined in announcing their introduction of the D.C. Student Opportunity Act. This legislation would establish a tax funded scholarship program to help low income D.C. children escape the dysfunctional schools in which they are trapped and choose to attend private or parochial schools in the greater Washington metropolitan area. Congress will hold hearings on this legislation in particular, and the school choice issue in general in two weeks.
The legislation would authorize spending $7 to $10 million over the next five years on such scholarships. It would authorize students whose family income is below the poverty line to apply for $3,200 in aid while families whose income is below 185 percent of the poverty line would be eligible for up to $2,400 in aid. As is typical for school choice proposals that have emerged around the United States, the Armey-Coats-Lieberman bill is being strongly opposed by teachers unions and, due to its inclusion of parochial schools among the choices where poor families may elect to “spend” their scholarship money, those who champion a strict separation of church and state. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that no collection of activists and interest groups fights harder for strict separation and, thus, against voucher proposals than the liberal wing of the American Jewish community. It is time for this long-standing opposition to be reversed.
The liberal Jewish community should reverse its position and support narrowly tailored programs such as the D.C. Opportunity Act, for the sake of the “social justice” concerns to which liberal Jews assert they are committed. As Washington Post columnist William Raspberry recently wrote: “Poor children desperately need better education. Yet the schools they attend — particularly in America’s overwhelmingly black and brown inner cities — may be the least successful of all public schools.” And more than five years ago, Jonathan Kozol graphically portrayed the “Savage Inequalities” visited upon inner city kids by these dysfunctional schools. Despite this harsh reality, well-to-do liberals in the Jewish community and other segments of American society are prepared to withhold from poor families the same ability to choose the education they believe suits their needs best and will afford their children the best prospects for the future that these well-to-do exercise every school year. Liberals withhold this choice for the sake of their interpretation of the Establishment Clause – an interpretation that is certainly subject to challenge in light of a Supreme Court decision handed down just last month – that would deem even an indirect flow of government funds to parochial institutions to be unconstitutional.
And here is the crux of the matter; how can those who constantly assert a commitment to social justice sacrifice the opportunity to liberate impoverished families from the cycle of poverty and assist them in exercising the same freedom to choose where and how their children are educated on the altar of an abstract (if not outdated) interpretation of the Constitution?
A real quest for social justice must seek initiatives that have a concrete impact upon people’s lives; and it is to that result that the Orthodox Jewish community is committed. Our view of repairing the world is one in which the repairs are not cosmetic but structural. Thus, when confronted with the reality of failing inner city schools that ensure a continuation of a disenfranchised underclass we look for real answers from Jewish sources and current reality; and what do we find?
We find the principle, codified by Maimonides, that the highest level of charity is to assist an individual so that he does not require charity. We find that the first empirical study of an operating school choice program – the Harvard Study of Milwaukee’s school choice program – finds that those students who switched to a “choice school” improved their math scores by ten percentile points and reading scores almost six percentile points after four years of enrollment. We find that the Jewish people have been called “the people of the book” not only because of our commitment to the Bible’s teachings but because we have been committed since the Talmudic era to the power of teaching and learning and affording these opportunities to all. And we find, in the case of Washington, D.C., that a recent survey revealed that over forty percent of District residents believed that providing scholarship vouchers was an “excellent” or “good” use of education dollars.
It is more than tragic that in our nation’s capital, in the shadows of Jefferson and Lincoln and the words those historic figures spoke, now etched in stone, about the promise of equality and opportunity in this nation, children are trapped in dysfunctional schools. The rest of the Jewish community ought to join with those of us who are working to pass the D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act, for the sake of the children.