Want Social Justice? Try Vouchers

Posted on June 15, 2000 In Blog

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America In recent years, an ongoing debate in the American Jewish community has been taking place over the issue of publicly funded school vouchers. The debate has many strands, they include whether such programs are constitutional, whether vouchers would force dysfunctional public schools to improve, and whether any of these considerations should be judged in light of the prospect of vouchers bringing additional resources into a Jewish educational system desperately in need of more support.

Underlying this debate, however, seemed to be one constant — the assumption that most American Jews opposed voucher programs for any number of reasons. And in fact, this assumption was well founded, at least as measured by the fierce opposition to vouchers voiced by many leading Jewish membership organizations as well as polling conducted by those organizations which indicated that support for vouchers within the community hovered around 30%.

Now, more than ever before, the arguments deployed by voucher opponents are collapsing around them. On the constitutional front, court decisions around the country have clearly indicated that when properly structured, voucher programs (and other forms of government assistance to parochial schools) do not violate the constitution”s Establishment Clause. Studies examining the performance of students in voucher programs indicate their improved academic ability and reports have also begun to indicate that public schools in those communities are trying to fend off expansion of the pilot voucher programs by improving their own performance.

On the Jewish communal front, prominent leaders within the community — including some affiliated with non-Orthodox or communal institutions such as Jack Wertheimer (JTS) and John Ruskay (UJA, New York) — have boldly stated that if we are truly committed to affording Jewish educational opportunity to all our children we must avail ourselves of government support. And now, from the independent polling firm of Zogby International, we are told that 52% of American Jews support voucher programs. While some would no doubt wish to dismiss this data, make no mistake, it is the crossing of a rubicon.

Unlike previous community polling on this issue, this survey was conducted by an independent firm and one of the most reliable American pollsters to boot. Moreover, to dismiss this finding as unreliable, critics must also be prepared to dismiss other findings in the Zogby Culture Poll; findings that show American Jews support abortion rights more strongly than the other ethnic groups surveyed (Asian-, Arab-, African-, Italian- and Hispanic-Americans), support the death penalty less, and campaign finance reform more.

So if opponents cannot dismiss this finding as unreliable, they must to assert that the Jewish community’s public policy agenda must not be determined by polls, but by principle. So let us briefly consider some core principles held by the American Jewish community and their impact on the voucher debate. One principle to which the community ascribes is a deep commitment to “social justice,” a crucial component of which is an effort to minimize the role of personal wealth in one’s ability to secure basic material needs. Thus, our community promotes government support for medical care, housing and even food for impoverished Americans. Yet, when it comes to the key to a bright future, namely education, this principle is cast aside. While wealthy parents can opt for the private school of their choice and middle-class parents can manage to move to a suburb with excellent public schools, the poor of America’s inner cities and rural communities are left to fend for themselves in crumbling buildings with outdated books that annual appropriations of millions of dollars have failed to change. (How else to explain Zogby’s finding overwhelming support for vouchers in the Hispanic (83%) and African (70%) communities.) To allow such a situation to continue belies a commitment to the principle of social justice.

The separation of church and state is another principle to which the American Jewish community is committed, but this principle has been taken to the extreme; properly considered, it does not proscribe vouchers. The U.S. Supreme Court as well as the highest courts in Wisconsin and Ohio have already either implied or explicitly said as much. To give a government-funded voucher to a parent to “spend” at the public, private or parochial school of their choice is no more a governmental establishment of religion than allowing a Medicare beneficiary to seek their treatment (which the government will pay for) at the public, private or parochial hospital of their choice. To assert otherwise is at least inconsistent. Moreover, it borders on religious discrimination — which the American Jewish committed is opposed to as well, on the basis of principle. What reason other than the acceptance of a subtle form of discrimination should we permit those who wish to rear their children in accordance with their religious faith be asked to both support the public schools through their taxes and not receive even modest support in return.

Finally, our community is committed to the principle of ensuring a Jewish future. We are all familiar with the data documenting our assimilation crisis as well as the data that Jewish education, and day school education in particular, is the surest way of stemming the crisis and rearing the next generation of committed Jews. This critical enterprise can only happen with a massive infusion of funds that will open the opportunities of day schools, supplementary schools, youth programs, summer camps and Israel experience trips to all young American Jews. And while there has been much said about increasing our communal fiscal commitment to this effort, there are serious questions as to whether we have the funds (estimates are near $1 billion) to achieve these goals without assistance from public funds.

Writing recently in Commentary magazine, JTS Provost Jack Wertheimer expressed grave concern over the fact that much of American Jewry’s organized representatives possess a “palpable aversion” to all forms of proposed government assistance to parochial schools. With the documentation of Jews’ views coming into confluence with a proper understanding of long-cherished principles, the time has come for those who would claim to represent the views and values of the broader American Jewish community to revisit their opposition to vouchers and other forms of “parochiaid,” and bringing their views in line with the people.