Advocates for Jewish or other religious schools are understandably anxious to establish legislative precedents that might someday allow for full funding of at least the secular portion of the education day schools supply. And given political and demographic realities, it is understandable that Jewish advocates will follow the lead of others. There are simply more Catholics, Evangelicals, and others who dislike public education and educators than there are Jews interested in funding Jewish education. But often it is not wise to follow the leader.
The Opportunity Scholarship Act, pending in the New Jersey legislature, presents such a case. It is of no help to Jewish schools, and it is particularly perverse public policy. It is hardly the voucher bill it is said to be.
The bill – which would provide tax credits for corporations donating funds for scholarships for low-income students attending failing schools, or, more precisely, living in districts with failing schools, to attend non-public schools – is a textbook case of legislation ideal for non-Jewish religious schools, and for those who would dismantle public education. The proposed measure is useless for Jewish schools.
The bill says that it is a reaction to a failed attempt by “school choice” proponents to have the judiciary create a funding mechanism for poor students assigned to persistently failing schools to attend religious or other non-public schools. Supporters of the scholarship program brought suit in 2007 to have the courts create a voucher program for children in failing schools. In 2009, the appellate division threw the case out on the grounds that it was premature to speculate on remedies if the then new school reforms did not result in improvements.
The lawsuit, essentially an attempt to legislate school vouchers by judicial decree, illustrated that requests for judicial activism are not an exclusive preserve of liberals.
If the bill’s supporters were interested in providing students in failed schools a viable educational option, a remedy is readily available: Allow such students to transfer to nearby public school districts and mandate that they accept such transfers, subject to space availability. No doubt that kind of plan would create racial and class controversy, but it would both keep public education intact and give students in failing schools real educational choices.
School choice activists are interested for ideological reasons in undermining the monopoly of public education. Thus, at least a quarter of the scholarships may be used by students not currently attending failing public schools. How does paying for Orthodox students in Passaic or Lakewood – who, in any event, would not attend public schools – improve public education?
Moreover, the Opportunity Scholarship Act takes direct aim at the democratic control of education, delegating decisions to corporate representatives about how much is spent on scholarships, which organizations will be allowed to distribute scholarships, and how the program will be evaluated. The board approving entities to distribute funded scholarships is to be made up of persons working for corporations paying the franchise tax – not a single educator, representative of a minority group, or individual involved in public or private education will be included. But education is a public responsibility, not a corporate one.
These, and other flaws in the bill, are objections (or, depending on one’s point of view, advantages) shared by Jews with the general public.
One feature of the bill, however, is a poison pill for many, if not most, Jewish schools, though not for non-Jewish religious schools. Scholarships may only be used in private schools that “do not discriminate in [their] admissions policies or practices for scholarship applicants.” That would exclude Jewish schools that insist on admitting only Jews – whether defined patrilineally, matrilineally, or otherwise – or that even prefer such students. Catholic inner-city schools already admit all comers, and many Christian schools have evangelizing as one of their goals.
Jewish schools have two primary tasks: introducing students to Jewish traditions and texts, and providing an environment where young Jews meet other young Jews – which, in the long run, will lead to in-marriages. Both of these are undermined by introducing non-Jews into the student body. Different friendships will be formed, largely defeating the social purposes of Jewish schools of whichever denomination.
And what will non-Jewish students do during Bible, Talmud, or holiday studies? Inevitably, unless schools simply ignore the needs of their non-Jewish students, the curriculum will need to be diluted and its message altered to accommodate those state-funded students. Or, perhaps, Jewish supporters of the bill may hope that non-Jews will be deterred from applying by the rigors of a dual program.
True, the Opportunity Scholarship Act is billed as a pilot program. But there is no chance that once anti-discrimination provisions are in place, they would be removed or watered down should the program be made permanent and general.
No one should deny the urgent need to find new ways to finance Jewish (and non-Jewish) education. The Opportunity Scholarship Act is not it.