Rabbi’s Essays

Vouchers and the Jewish Problem

The old joke goes: A class is given an assignment to write an essay about elephants. Students write about its habitat, mating habits, anatomy, diet, etc. Sammy Goldberg’s essay is entitled, “The Elephant and the Jewish Problem.”

Somehow, there is a Jewish issue connected to every topic. Twenty-five years ago, I was asked to participate on a number of panels discussing the Supreme Court decision regarding Michael de Bakke. The case, you might remember, had to do with a student suing for a place in a University of California medical school, and established the Court’s position on the line between affirmative action and quota. De Bakke was not a Jew, yet it struck many sectors of society that no discussion of affirmative action could take place without a Jewish participant.

Now there is the Supreme Court decision regarding the State of Ohio’s voucher program from Cleveland inner city students. Virtually no Jewish students or parents are affected. There might be some Jewish teachers and administrators involved; probably considerably less than a generation ago. Yet, vouchers are a Jewish problem. Jewish organizations have publicly expressed their reactions. Most have denounced or stated their disappointment with the decision. The Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism, for example, issued a statement that said: “Sadly, today’s decision undermines the American traditions of democracy and religious liberty that have made our nation unique. In upholding the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program, the Court abandoned the judiciary’s traditional interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause as meaning that the government will not fund parochial education.”

Not all Jews, however, are opposed to the Supreme Court decision. Some see a potential opening to eventual state support for Jewish Day Schools. Vouchers are indeed a Jewish problem, as the issue speaks to Jewish values and Jewish interests.

Not Your Father’s Public School

From the founding of the Republic, there has been a debate about education, and about the separation of Church and State. The two are, of course, not the same, but they do occasionally intersect. Why do these debates persist? In part, it is because they are impossible to resolve. Both issues are founded on competing and contradictory values. The United States is an egalitarian society that values and rewards excellence. We cannot both treat every student equally as having their own individual potentiality and intrinsic worth, and at the same, work to promote the efforts and talents of some over the others. American ideals envision a wall disentangling the State from the private and personal religious convictions of its citizens. Yet, those convictions continuous bleed over into areas of public policy, from abortion to land management.

A second reason the debates persist is because the grounds constantly shift. The United States is a dynamic society. Conventional wisdom is overturned regularly by technology, discovery, demographics, mobility, or events that take place away from our shores. Sometimes we find ourselves taking for granted ideas that we would have considered far out a dozen years ago. I think this is the case with respect to education. The change in the role, purpose and composition of public schools has been dramatic over the past thirty years. We often confuse the present day reality with realities and ideals of the past. The debate over vouchers has been caught in that wash.

What is the purpose of schools? We all tend to agree that it is to teach. Teach what? One answer is knowledge and skills, for which there ensues a debate regarding which knowledge and what skills? (Think about Evolution and Creationism, states’ rights vs. slavery as a cause to the Civil War, Sex Ed., phonics and whole word methods to learning how to read.) Let us leave that aside, and consider the other purposes for schools; very important and relevant purposes that are usually not thought about at all.

One of these purposes is to keep children out of the work force and off the streets. There is not only a moral objection to child labor, but our economy is predicated on the modulation of the work force, particularly of unskilled workers. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, farms and factories could absorb workers, and a public education through grades four or eight—sufficient to teach basic reading and computing skills—was deemed enough. After World War II, a high school education became the norm, as much a reflection of the changing economy as a response to the ideals of a learned society. The demands for longer periods of schooling, starting earlier and continuing on into college, have continued to grow.

We have an economy that is less and less dependent upon unskilled labor, and this fact has brought about a second subtle but unmistakable change in the purpose of schooling. It has to do with the value we place on the schools as a source of socialization. When I was in school in the 1950s and 60s, the class subjects were English, Science, Math and something called Social Studies. In seventh grade, the school combined history and literature into a class called Citizenship Education! I would guess that these class titles are familiar to many of you. They speak of a time when a primary purpose for public education was to create proper American citizens.

We need not delve into what exactly constitutes a good American citizen, and may also note that this purpose has hardly disappeared. It has been, however, crowded by a new emphasis on schools as the source of job training. When one talks about “excellence in education,” “leave no child behind,” “preparing for the twenty-first century,” and decrying failing schools, the heart of the concern is whether schools are adequately training children to be productive—that is, job holding—members of society. I hardly wish to demean this goal, but I believe it is also an unprecedented connection between education and the economic fabric of our society.

You might think that the purposes of reinforcing good citizenship and facilitating better job skills should not be conflicting. Ideally, I suppose this is true. Good citizenship is not economically productive in the same sense as a good course in computer programming. Liberal education (the term is not meant politically), often at the heart of citizenship education, is also substantially what Jews would call Torah l’shma [study for its own sake]. It is my observation that schools are neither financially nor emotionally prepared to offer too much of this.

Why Vouchers . . . ?

Profound changes have been brought to bear on the American education system. Some of them are for the better, some not. Some have occurred as a result of venality, ignorance, good intentions and careful planning, and some are the by-product of larger forces in the society. You have all seen, no doubt, the classic slapstick stunt of someone trying to close a drawer in a chest, but each time he pushes one drawer shut, another pops open. The crisis (I’ll use this word, everybody does!) in American education has all the earmarks of being part of that shtick. Thus, I think of vouchers as a good solution for a badly analyzed problem, or a bad solution for a real problem. Either way, it is not particularly good for the Jews.

What is the problem for which vouchers have been promoted as a solution? Simply put, inner city schools in Cleveland—and most other impoverished areas of the U.S.—fail their students. Why do they fail? The reason promoted by supporters of vouchers is that these schools have no competition. Because they are freed from market forces, they have no incentive to improve. By making alternative schools—by definition, those outside of the public system—more available to parents and children, a form of competition is created, and everyone will benefit.

The solution either willfully ignores or brackets out the issue of adequate funding. Per student funding in failing school systems is by-and-large way below that of relatively successful systems. Critics of vouchers point out the obvious: when the State allocates funds for alternative schooling, it is generally reducing its support for the failing system. This argument is fundamentally based on the proposal that more money (obviously spent with a modicum of thoughtfulness and competence) makes for better schools.

What is the response? Critics of vouchers assume there is no response, because they believe that the promoters of vouchers are simply uninterested or actively opposed to public education. There certainly are systemic critics of public education (possibly including one or more Supreme Court Justices), but that does not mean there is no response possible.

Regarding funding: yes, poor communities tend to have poorer schools. This is lamentable, but perhaps impossible to fix. School funding is mostly a local responsibility, which inevitably leads to the disparities in per student spending. More equalization might be possible, but push close this drawer and you pop open political and social headaches. Cleveland will never be able to fund its schools at the levels enjoyed by Beechwood or Shaker Heights. Money cannot be the sole solution. We must try something else.

Further, the amount of money expended on vouchers is only a drop in the bucket. The Cleveland program, for instance, utilizes about $8 million for vouchers, out of a total school budget of a few hundred million dollars. Would restoring or adding that eight million really make all that much of a difference?

Funding is only a piece of the response. We may ask, are the students of Cleveland—both those who use the vouchers and those who do not—better or worse off as a result of the program? I have seen a few articles and news reports that describe studies done of the fortunes of students who have utilized vouchers, and of those who did not. From what I can glean, there is not an appreciable change. This means that predictions of greater success as a result of escaping these poor performing schools has not materialized. On the other side, public schools that have lost students as a result of a voucher program have not been adversely affected. It appears that neither the claims of success nor the cries of disaster have really come to pass.

There has, however, been one significant benefit. The private and parochial schools that have participated in voucher programs are much more integrated than the public schools. Perhaps, on the strength of this last finding, we should consider voucher programs for inner city schools at least a marginally good thing. Put another way, if vouchers are eliminated, what other solution is there to the clear re-segregation of the schools that has developed over the past three decades?

An Aside on Schooling and the Market

We might wonder why the evidence does not reveal much improvement in students who escape poor performing schools. I admit; I am surprised by this information. Even if one thought that on balance, vouchers and its concomitant reduction of support to public education is a bad idea, one might still expect students to improve once they get into private education. Even in supporting public schools, there is consensus that some of them are quite poor; not only in resources and funding, but in their ability to provide sound learning. Why is there not anything more than modest improvement, if any, in results.

I can think of a couple of logical answers. First, the study sample is small and the time frame short. The voucher program takes place in only a few cities, and has been in place for only a few years. All evidence at this point might be premature. Further, the students who take advantage of vouchers are the products of the more motivated homes. The parents are sufficiently concerned about their children’s education that they will make the extra effort—tuition, as the voucher rarely covers all of the cost, possibly more travel, uniforms, etc.—to make the move. That motivation, however, was already working when they were in their old schools.

And I would add with some caution a second reason: the new school a voucher student is attending may not be better than the old one! One of the most strongly asserted arguments for extending vouchers is the following: Public schools fail because they have no real competition. Competition—the market—improves products even as it drives down, or at least, restrains costs. There is only so much money that can be thrown at schools. We must think of a better way to get a bigger bang for the buck. Hence, let us have the market do its part.

It is a great argument, and might very well work in the areas of toothpaste, cereals and automobiles, but it is not so good for schools. Do two or three alternative schools make up a market? Are public and private, particularly parochial, schools in competition? There is ample evidence that when only a few vendors are offering the same service in a large enough population, there is greater incentive for them to cooperate (or, if you wish to be more cynical, collude) than to compete. The old joke goes: one lawyer came into town, and did not do very well. Then a second lawyer came, and they both did wonderfully.

Let us assume, however, that a few vendors did represent a competitive market. Do schools actually compete? I will draw from my own experience. Both of my children are the products of private school education. They attended Jewish day schools. This was not an ideological decision on the part of my wife and myself. We had just moved to Buffalo, NY, and discovered that the Jewish community day school was one of the few places with more than a half-day nursery program. We enrolled our son, and then stayed with the school as he progressed into kindergarten and first grade, and in time, we enrolled our daughter as well.

We came to appreciate what a Jewish day school did in the areas of providing Hebrew and Judaica learning, and in reinforcing the Jewish identity of our children. This was, after all, the primary purpose of the school. The schools also offered quite adequate secular learning. Was it better or worse than the local public schools? It did not make a difference, as long as it was good enough.

Public and private schools need only be ‘competitive’ in the sense that their educational offerings need to be roughly comparable. For the most part, private schools do not exist in order to give ‘superior’ learning, but rather something else. In the case of parochial schools, that something else is religious instruction.

. . . And Why Not Vouchers?

You can see I am highly skeptical of the claim that vouchers are good for public education by providing poor performing schools with competition. Please note, however, that vouchers do provide some very positive things. I have already mentioned that they offer an opportunity for learning in more integrated classrooms. They also offer choice. The studies that show that voucher students are not necessarily performing better in their new schools, also show that on balance they are happier. Dropout rates are much lower.

What do we want as an American people for education? We want all school age children to receive an adequate education. We want them to remain in school through graduation. We want them to have an opportunity to continue their schooling through college. We also want the students to be good and productive citizens of the nation. Many public schools meet or approximate this objective. Virtually all of them are in relatively high-income districts where there is adequate funding for personnel and facilities. These districts also have something else: a motivated population who expects good quality from their schools and are willing to pay for them.

Poor performing schools are often relegated to a Catch-22. They are both under-funded and have a less than supportive population, who are cynical and despairing about their schools since they cannot afford to bring them up to a standard of quality that might make them more hopeful about a good education for their children in the first place. Some parents, however, have not given in to despair, and for them, vouchers appear to be the only way out of the bind.

A case can be made for vouchers. What is the case against? I believe that in the long run, vouchers would do more harm than good. Vouchers ultimately fulfill two valuable goals: integration and choice. These goals can be achieved in other fashions, though admittedly more expensive and politically harder to attain.

Vouchers, however, are not being promoted on the basis of diversity and choice. They are supposed to be the answer to failing schools. The evidence suggests that neither the students nor the schools are being significantly impacted. I think I have indicated why. This misdirected argument suggests that there is a hidden reason for the promotion of vouchers. It is one that goes beyond other political factors: protection of the suburbs, cutting or restraining budgets, or opposing the teachers’ unions. Vouchers are a way of attacking the perceived godlessness of public schools.

The Cleveland system technically is neutral regarding the schools to which vouchers might be used. As a matter of practical reality, the system is overwhelmingly weighted toward students choosing church-supported institutions. I have no doubt that the underlying concern of those who fashioned the state statute was precisely to create a granting mechanism to these parochial schools that had a good chance of passing constitutional muster, particularly with this Supreme Court.

There is a widespread belief that values have been drained from American education. School prayer was eliminated in the early 1960s, and everything has gone to hell since. The public schools are a lost cause, so the best thing to do is get as many students as possible into church-based education.

There are a plethora of weak points and contradictions in this argument. Equally “godless” suburban public schools are unaffected, even protected. A romantic and highly debatable notion that schooling was better back in the “good ol’ days” is promoted. Most problematic, however, is what is to be understood by value. The language, once more, is neutral, but the practical reality is that the values being promoted are those of mainstream, mostly conservative, religious institutions, that are Christian.

Church and State

We should now return to the issue of the First Amendment and its Establishment Clause. This is where the decision by the Supreme Court started. I noted before that the so-called “wall” between government interest and religious conviction cannot be impermeable. The courts have called upon time and again to decide on a balance between what can be two competing interests.

In recent years, legal observers have suggested three basic approaches to the Establishment Clause. They are: accommodation, neutrality and non-denominationalism. The last one allows for the most interpenetration of Church and State interests, and is currently promoted by a relatively small number of proponents. In essence, this position suggests that the Establishment Clause was designed in order to assure that no one Church is “established” as an institution of the State. The government can therefore favor and promote religion, as long as its statutes and practices are purely non-denominational, showing no partiality to one religious institution over another.

The second notion, neutrality, held sway in the 5-4 decision of the Court. It holds that government can further a state interest with a practice that does not distinguish between religious and secular institutions. The current effort to have the Federal government support faith-based agencies along with non-sectarian ones doing the same type of work, is based on this interpretation of the Clause.

Finally, there is accommodation. The notion here is that the First Amendment restrains the government from promoting religion, and also bars it from impeding religious practice. Having chaplains in the military and in prisons is a good example of the State accommodating religion. It also accommodates when it decides that personal religious conviction can occasionally serve as a basis for avoiding doing what others might be required to do. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, were released in 1943 from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

After over two hundred years of experience with the Bill of Rights, it is clear that separation between Church and State must entail accommodation. Yet, the experience also underscores both the difficulties and the wisdom of the Establishment Clause. In The Culture of Disbelief (an important, earnest and inevitably muddled examination of constitutionally secular government in a religious society), law professor Stephen Carter quotes a colleague, Kathleen Sullivan, who had noted that at no time in American history has a mainstream Christian Church needed to approach the Supreme Court for accommodation. In other words, the Christianity of American culture and society is so ingrained and natural, it requires no affirmative action on the part of the government in order to protect its practice.

Church/State issues arise precisely at the point of conflict between public policy and private religious conviction. When the overwhelming majority of the populace adheres to a religious conviction (whether deeply held or virtually secular, such as buying gifts for the “Holidays”) that is fundamentally Christian, then the conflict arises essentially when the public policy abuts against a non-Christian or eccentrically Christian practice.

Consider some of the better-known cases: The Mormon Church and the ban on polygamy. Jehovah’s Witnesses and the obligation to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (back before the words “under God” were inserted). Christian Science and medical intervention for sick children. The Orthodox Jewish army doctor who could not wear a yarmulke because it violated military dress regulations. Haitian Santeria and issues of cruelty to animals. Oregon Native Americans fired from their jobs as drug counselors because they participate in their religion’s peyote ritual. Finally, the Muslim woman in a chador and her picture on a state’s driver’s license.

In some of these cases, the religious practice was ultimately accommodated. In others, it had to give way to consideration of a larger public interest. In every case, the problem arose from a “minority” religious practice.

The Establishment Clause, in the final analysis, erects a relatively porous wall between Church and State. Its importance and success is not derived from the sturdiness of the wall, but rather from the expanse of space it has carved out in the American psyche that establishes a realm of religious conviction that is inviolate of public policy. This, I think, is less a matter of law or politics than it is one of psychology. Of all the issues and concerns that could arise in public debate, we as a society try to be relatively insensate to those that arise within the walls of our churches, synagogues, mosques, ashrams, etc.

When the doctrine behind the First Amendment moves beyond accommodation to concepts such as neutrality or non-denominationalism, it opens up the doors of the houses of worship to the realm of the public interest. Some people are all in favor of this, as they are confident the results will be that religious conviction will more affirmatively affect public policy, especially when they are so certain that the policies are devoid of positive moral value. It never occurs to them that the opposite dynamic might happen, that the secular policy would affect religious practice. If they are mainstream Christians, of course they would be right! The historical evidence suggests that if they are not mainstream Christian, religious conviction could very well give to a perceived public interest.

Does this assessment include Jewish institutions? Given the overall notion of a “Judeo-Christian” heritage, Jewish concerns tend to be less impacted in Church-State issues than other religions, including the smaller Christian sects. Judaism is nonetheless a minority religion whose practices and doctrines could easily fall outside the vision of Christian policy makers. Yes, Jewish interests, I believe, are placed more in jeopardy by a weakening of the wall between Church and State. And yes, vouchers are a Jewish problem.

A Final Word on Schools

The demands on schools are unprecedentedly high, and it will probably continue to get worse. In an economy where skilled labor is a necessity, education must provide training beyond elementary learning. More school-age children have to go to school, and for longer periods of time. In a post-civil rights era, issues of equality and pluralism have been brought to the fore. Inferior education or lack of opportunity for people of color or for women is unacceptable. Schools are expected to do a better job of teaching whole populations of students society comfortably ignored a half-century ago. Increased study and analysis of education itself has revealed a greater understanding of the diversity in learning development among children. Schooling, in order to be more successful, has had to become more individualized, and subjected to greater local scrutiny. All in all, more children require more education with greater sensitivity to their individual differences. Little wonder public education is in crisis!

These demands, if not outright contradictory, certainly are in conflict with each other. I do not think they are going to be solved easily, unless there is a massive infusion of funding, probably on the level of the current defense budget, and with an equal toleration of waste and mismanagement that accompanies our defense spending. I am serious about the acceptance of waste. The purpose (or cross purpose) of our schools is to increase learning in knowledge and skills, which is universal and objective, and to instill self-worth, maturity, respect of differences and creativity, which is individual and subjective. To do both, the system must spend money that cannot be accounted for, or will be frittered away without measurable results.

How do I know? Consider one of the better school districts in a region. It is well funded, and tends to provide a good level of education to a majority of its constituency. Yet, these same school districts have a significant percentage of children who ‘opt out,’ by attending a variety of private institutions. While, I do not know for sure, I would guess that the higher the average income in a district, the greater percentage actually do not attend the local public schools. Per capita spending in these districts is rather high, but it is also a relatively lower portion of the available wealth. Parents who wish to provide their children with something different—whether it is in religious training, greater discipline, specialized learning programs, the proper connections to get into an Ivy League school, or whatever—will pay both their obligation to public education and the cost of private schooling. Thus, the parents are paying well above the actual cost for the right and privilege of having individual choice.

The voucher programs can be viewed as an effort to provide for those without means the choice that those with means take for granted.

The United States has been built—rather successfully—on a set of ideals that include: meritocracy, egalitarianism, personal choice and freedom of religion. As noted in the controversy over vouchers, these ideals do not fit together very well. The U.S. has also been built on the notion that problems can be solved. The voucher programs that heavily rely on parochial education is a misguided solution—one that cannot help but be detrimental to Jewish interests—to a real problem that goes beyond mere slogans about support of public education, and defense of the First Amendment. The crisis of schooling, particularly for the poorest strata of the country, does require a solution. That solution is yet to be found.