School choice: Is it good for the Jews?

President-elect Trump’s announcement that he intends to nominate Betsy Devos to be Secretary of Education has created a storm of controversy.  Unlike most controversies surrounding Trump and his incoming administration, however, this one actually involves issues of substance.  Devos is an unabashed advocate of “school choice”, a catchall term that can encompass voucher programs, charter schools and home schooling, together with variations on each.  This debate does not exactly split American Jewry down the middle, but it does create a rift among Jews in which both sides claim to have Jewish reasons for their positions.

I have no desire to mislead, so let me state up front that I am not neutral in this debate.  I believe that Jewish day schools are a key to the American Jewish future, and I want day school education to be an option available to all Jewish parents who want it.  Moreover, I believe that as a matter of basic fairness, honest taxpaying people of faith should not be forced to choose between their right to an elementary or secondary education subsidized by the state on the one hand and an intensive religious education for their children on the other.

Shortly after the Devos nomination was announced, the Forward published a pair of articles, one on each side of the school choice debate.  The anti-Devos article was writtern by Jay Michaelson, a Forward contributing editor and regular columnist, while the pro-Devos side was represented by Avi Shafran, the indefatigable spokesman for Agudath Israel and defender of all things chareidi.  Some part of each article dealt with Devos’s background, character, and qualifications, of which I’m sure we’ll hear more in the coming weeks.  For the purposes of this post, however, I’ll focus on the merits of their arguments in the underlying substance of the school choice debate.

Michaelson’s piece begins with the customary nostalgic tribute to the mythic public schools of yesteryear, in the era of mass immigration, when the children of immigrants, (Michaelson’s parents apparently  among them), were Americanized.  As Michaelson expresses it:

[P]ublic schools taught them not just facts and figures, but also how to be American — and how to be proud of being American.

Contrast Michaelson’s idealized version of the public school of yore with the parade of horribles to which he claims to believe Devos aspires. His description of Devos’s vision is

to re-Christianize America and to replace the melting pot or gorgeous mosaic of our current secular society with an imagined America of a hundred years ago, white dominated, Christian-dominated, traditional in values and orientation.

Michaelson is somewhat selective in his nostalgia.  This is hardly surprising — nostalgia flourishes best at the cross-roads where memory meets myth.  More surprising is his confusion of the “melting pot” with the “gorgeous mosaic,”  two metaphorical phrases that represent starkly different approaches to American society’s diversity.

The “melting pot” — the dominant approach during the period of mass immigration  —  envisioned cultural differences disappearing with time as our country’s diverse population melts down into one undifferentiated homogenous mass.  The “gorgeous mosaic,” by contrast, envisions a society whose strength is precisely its continued diversity, where cultural differences don’t disappear, but create a pattern in which each subculture, by remaining true to itself, participates in the creation of a greater whole.

The public schools that taught the children of the immigrants how to be Americans during that era reflected the dominant melting pot philosophy of that period.  Protestant prayer and readings from Christian scripture were standard practice in many public schools.  There was no need for Protestant schools because the public schools were in effect Protestant schools.  (The forerunner of today’s school choice debate arose out of the Protestant establishment’s desire to weaken the Catholic Church, which was growing rapidly as a result of the immigration of many Catholics from Southern and Eastern Europe, most of whom were choosing to send their children to Catholic scoools.) Does Michaelson believe that adopting the mores of the Protestant society around us is an essential part of learning “how to be an American”?

Today’s public schools no longer reflect the “melting pot” philosophy, but they haven’t quite figured out how to replace it.  Supporters of the public school monopoly choose to ignore the simple fact that there is no such thing as values-neutral education, because values-neutrality itself is a reflection of values.  In order to maintain neutrality as among both religious and secular approaches to life, one must teach that no one approach is better than another.  Most religious approaches, however, begin from the premise that some approaches are better than others.

Many public schools today evade this paradox by avoiding controversial subjects, particularly those involving religion, whenever possible.  This approach by school administrators eager to avoid being caught in the culture war cross-fire is understandable.  Beyond the early grades, however, it’s effectively unworkable: there’s no way to avoid all controversy except by ignoring everything of substance.

To underscore what he sees as the danger of school choice for the Jewish community, Michaelson rehashes a recent expose in the Forward, which found that some chareidi schools (mostly those connected with chassidic sects, though Michaelson neglects to mention that) “utterly fail to provide an adequate secular education.”  I make no defense of those schools, which are doing a disservice to their students as well as acting in violation of law.  Michelson doesn’t explain, however, how the students of those lawless schools will be helped by a blanket refusal to subsidize all religiously affiliated schools, most of which do try to provide at least an adequate — if not more than adequate — secular education.

Michaelson fears that Devos’s focus on school choice will weaken the public schools by “funneling money to religious schools” at the expense of secular ones.  That, in turn, according to Michaelson, will lead to:

a profound shift in what we mean by education — away  from the knowledge and cognitive skills required in a 21st century economy, and toward an ultra traditionalist iteration of morality over reason, religion over science.

Michaelson’s fear that Devos will use school choice as an excuse to starve the public schools may be rational given her background and ideological proclivities, but it is not inherent in any argument for school choice.  Pursuing a school choice agenda while simultaneously cutting federal domestic spending overall — which appears to be the Trump administration’s intention —  might have that effect, however, and skepticism is surely warranted.

Finally, near the end of his piece, Michaelson inadvertently hints at   what’s really bothering him.  He criticizes

some foolish Orthodox Jewish organizations [that] have signed onto “school choice” initiatives since they promise a short-term financial windfall for Orthodox Jewish schools — as if a few dollars thrown to them will not be drowned out by a thousand times as many poured into Christian schools.

Given the relative proportions of Jewish and Christian students in the populations, it is inevitable that the money spent on school choice for Christians will greatly outweigh that spent on school choice for Jews. Michaelson never explains, however, why that should bother us as Jews. He may envision an educational landscape dominated by fundamentalist Protestant schools, but it is hard to avoid concluding that Michaelson sees religion — or at least any religion taken seriously enough to challenge his “progressive” ideology — as an evil to be contained.

Shafran’s piece, written in response to Michaelson’s, is far less hysterical in tone. He begins by playing to his strength, emphasizing the value of competition and asserting that vouchers would:

mitigate the public school system’s effective monopoly on education — and that’s a healthy thing.

After citing studies that purport to show the benefits of school choice. Shafran gets to what he sees as the real issue,

the straightforward justice of allowing mothers and fathers to choose how their children are educated… To insist that the American educational norm be limited to a set of beliefs runs counter to the very notion of personal freedom.

Shafran, who is not known for his gentleness of tone, does let his rhetoric get away from him at one point, referring to opposition to school choice as “educational totalitarianism.”  He is a paragon of rational argumentation, however, compared to Michaelson.

Michaelson appears to favor a public school monopoly because it is more likely than a system of parental choice to result in children learning from a perspective that he finds congenial.  He assumes rather than argues that facilitating religious education for Christians would be detrimental to Jewish interests.  Shafran, however, isn’t buying it.  He argues that:

That Christian parents, Muslim parents or secular parents will choose schools for their kids that reflect their values doesn’t threaten me and shouldn’t.  Nor should it intimidate any truly liberal-minded person.

It would be nice if Shafran were to state clearly his condemnation of those Chassidic or other chareidi schools mentioned by Michaelson that ignore their legal and moral obligations to provide at least a minimally adequate secular education.  As anyone who has followed his writings over the years knows, however, he is reluctant to criticize any faction of the chareidi world. In keeping with his version of no enemies on the right, Shafran chooses to ignore that element of Michaelson’s piece, instead focusing on Michaelson’s illiberal liberalism.

Neither Michaelson nor Shafran mentions that the largest beneficiary of any concerted school choice policy will be neither Orthodox yeshivot nor fundamentalist academies but rather Catholic schools that in many cases are already providing an optional exit for those inner city parents who are desperate for a way out of frequently dysfunctional urban school systems. To the extent that school choice has a chance of succeeding on a mass level, it is largely a result of a desire to provide inner city parents with a viable alternative to the dysfunction of their local public school.   However cogent Shafran’s argument may be (and since I agree with it, I think it is quite cogent), it could not prevail in the face of Americans’ pragmatic inertia without a sense that for many children of the inner city, some change is desperately needed.

So where does that leave committed Jews who would like government money to be the salvation of Jewish day school education  but are not eager to insert themselves into the middle of a fight with cultural and political overtones that make them uneasy?  The key problem with any proposed voucher system is that it would force government to fund the education of students who are already in private schools and  would thus cost more than the current system. Once this reality becomes apparent to Republicans, it seems likely that their pro-school choice ardor will cool quickly.  As Republican principles go, school choice cannot compete with lower taxes.

Thus, Devos’s tenure is unlikely to be as transformative as Shafran hopes and Michaelson fears.  The bulk of education funding in this country comes from state and local governments, so the federal government’s influence is limited.  The results of this year’s Presidential election notwithstanding, moreover, the American people, are usually pragmatic by nature.  Your typical suburban parents are mostly satisfied with their local public schools. They may be willing to endorse radical experimentation in large urban school systems that are clearly  failing, but if they see their own public school systems as not broken, they are likely to be cautious about how much radical fixing they will tolerate.

That’s not to say that those who are passionately favorable to Jewish days school education should not see Devos’s stewardship of the Department of Education as an opportunity to advance their cause, only that they should not expect radical transformation of our public school system any time soon.  By all means let’s make sure that the educational needs of the Jewish community have a place on the national agenda, but I wouldn’t start counting that spare tuition money just yet.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.