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A Choice for the Chosen

Friday, January 1, 1999

How school choice can renew Jewish community

School vouchers will give more parents the resources and the choice to send their children to private schools. In these circumstances, more Jewish parents would be enabled to send their children to Jewish day schools. More Jewish children would then have the chance to obtain a grounding in Hebrew language, in Jewish history and ritual, and in the Bible, the Talmud, and other central texts. And this, in turn, would strengthen Jewish community.

So Jews ought to support vouchers—or tuition tax credits or other programs that would expand school choice. Yet the most prominent Jewish advocacy organizations are opposed to school choice programs. Organizations like the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith do not oppose Jewish education or separate Jewish schools. But they have been firmly opposed to government programs to support education in religious schools—even when the support goes to parents who then can choose what schools are best for their children.

There seem to be two main grounds of opposition. On the one hand, there is skepticism that many more Jewish parents would send their children to separate Jewish schools, even if some form of public funding made them more affordable. On the other hand, there is concern that government aid to—or "entanglement" with—religious schools would foster a more religious atmosphere in the country, which would be, in practice, a Christian atmosphere, hence marginalizing to non-Christian groups. Many Jewish organizations are staunch advocates of public education, seeing it as a guarantor of a common public culture, which ensures toleration for religious minorities.

These assumptions and concerns are, I believe, misplaced in contemporary America. But they still need to be confronted. It may be useful, however, to start with some common ground—on why the encouragement of Jewish schooling would be a good thing for the Jewish community on its own terms.

Benefits of Separate Schooling

In the two thousand years since Jews have lived in exile from the Land of Israel, Jewish communities have always organized separate schools for their children to teach the essentials of Jewish religious practice. Yet in America, Jews have been welcomed with full citizenship rights and a fully equal status to a degree unmatched perhaps by any host country in the long history of the Jewish Diaspora. And for perhaps the first time, too, the Jewish community in America trustingly sent its children off to public schools, where they received the same instruction as children of other faiths. Most Jewish children in America receive almost no separate instruction in Jewish religious practice. Most of those who do receive such instruction do so after school or in Sunday school classes, where time is short and distractions are many.

In consequence, most American Jews now observe the ritual law quite imperfectly or not at all. In synagogue worship, the traditional prayers and the readings from the Torah are in Hebrew, a language which most American Jews, again, know only imperfectly or not at all. Jews who have received no serious prior instruction are likely to find the synagogue service bewildering. Certainly, the uninitiated find it hard to take part and must remain, at best, spectators of a staged ceremony and not full participants in communal worship.

Surveys in the early 1990s found that the majority of Jews who married in the previous decade married non-Jews and that conversions of non-Jewish partners were declining. As one might expect, opinion polls report that the children of intermarriages regard religion as a matter of private belief or inner feeling—and not something that requires formal ritual or demonstrative affiliation. Parents who do not establish a Jewish home cannot expect their children to behave differently when they grow up. The demographic trends are so disturbing that even the traditionally liberal Jewish advocacy organizations have recently begun demanding programs to preserve "Jewish continuity."

But the most effective program is Jewish education. Children who receive a more thorough Jewish education are far better equipped to participate in Jewish religious practice. So, when they grow up, they tend to take their religious obligations more seriously and to play a more active or committed role in the Jewish community.

The point should not require documentation but it has, in fact, been documented. A survey conducted by Mordechai Rimor and Elihu Katz (funded by the Avi Chai Foundation) found, for example, that 79 per cent of Jewish day school graduates married other Jews, compared with fewer than half of those who had only received Jewish instruction in after-school programs.

Does this effect simply reflect the fact that the parents who send their children to Jewish day schools tend to be more committed to "continuity," themselves? A recent survey by Steven M. Cohen sought to control for parental influences and isolate the separate effect of schools. He found that, among Jewish activities, "part-time school, youth group, adolescent Israel travel, each make partial contributions. Day schools, be they Orthodox or not, typically exert much greater impact."

So why shouldn’t Jews support public policies that would allow more Jewish children to attend Jewish day schools? Part of the cold response to voucher schemes seems to reflect a skepticism that there really would be more children in Jewish day schools even if government policies did make them more affordable. But the skeptical attitude assumes that all Orthodox families are already sending their children to Jewish schools and that demand for separate Jewish schools among non-Orthodox Jews will always remain limited. Both assumptions are highly questionable.

Growing Opportunities

The overwhelming majority of Jewish day schools in the United States—78 percent at last count—are Orthodox. But it is not true that Orthodox parents have always sent their children to yeshivas and therefore will always do so, no matter what the prevailing government policy.

As late as 1945, there were only 69 Jewish day schools in the United States, with a combined enrollment of only 10,200 students. The growth in Orthodox day schools in the decades since World War II has been extraordinary. By 1975, there were 425 Orthodox day schools, serving 82,200 students. There are 731 day schools today.

This expansion has occurred despite tremendous financial burden. Vouchers would ease the tuition burden for parents and may allow schools to expand their enrollments and improve their facilities. A 1994 report on "Jewish Day Schools in the United States" sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation found that day-school enrollment falls off substantially in higher grades, even for Orthodox schools. A survey of very traditionalist schools in New York found twice as many students enrolled in first and second grade as in 12th grade. Why the decline? Cost is clearly a factor, along with some dissatisfaction at small schools and inadequate facilities—which are related, in turn, to financial pressures. A voucher of significant size might enable parents to keep their children in these schools longer. What is more, the schools themselves would enjoy the added resources that could make them all the more attractive as a viable educational alternative.

This argument is even stronger—because the potential numbers are much larger—if we turn to non-Orthodox schools and non-Orthodox families. Although their enrollment is much smaller, non-Orthodox day schools represent a dramatic success story in their own right. Prior to 1957, when the Conservative synagogues encouraged the creation of their own Solomon Schechter Schools, the only Jewish day schools were Orthodox. Since then, the number of students in non-Orthodox schools has risen to about 50,000. In addition to the Schechter Schools, which seem to serve the large majority of non-Orthodox day-schoolers, there are now Reform day schools and a network of some 80 "independent" schools not affiliated with any synagogue or denomination.

One reason to expect continuing growth is that, although overall trends are still dismaying, there is substantial evidence of Jewish commitments deepening among those who affiliate with Jewish institutions. Growth in Jewish summer camps, like the Ramah camps sponsored by the Conservative synagogues, has paralleled that of day schools. After-school Jewish instruction, though enrolling far fewer students than it did in the 1960s, is much less likely to be a once-a-week affair than in the past.

Yet most parents outside Orthodoxy do not now send their children to Jewish day schools. Though we do not have reliable numbers, enrollment in such supplementary Jewish programs approaches 300,000, while enrollment of students in non-Orthodox day schools is estimated at 50,000. Such figures imply that only about 15 percent of the potential market for non-Orthodox day schools is now actually served by such schools. By contrast, Catholic schools currently enroll 28 per cent of Catholic children in grades K-8 (according to Church estimates), even though intensive religious instruction is not as critical to Catholic worship as it is for full participation in Jewish ritual.

Voucher subsidies might help tip the scales in favor of a Jewish day school, not only for parents concerned about cost but for those concerned about quality. The larger the school, the more it can spread its costs and improve its facilities. Size, moreover, gives an impression of reassuring vigor, just as half-empty classrooms may reinforce a sense of fragility. Particularly for non-Orthodox parents, Jewish day schools would become more attractive if they fed into more good Jewish high schools.

Seventy-nine percent of day school graduates married other Jews, compared with fewer than half of those who had received only after-school instruction.

Some hint of this can be gleaned from a 1995 survey of Jewish parents in Seattle, commissioned by the Samis Foundation. One third of the 419 families who did not currently send their children to a day school said that they were giving the matter serious consideration. Of these, nearly half said they would be willing to pay as much as $3,000 for such a school—but less than 20 per cent said they would be willing to pay more than $5,000. The Samis Foundation then provided assistance to the only Jewish high school in Seattle so that it could cap its tuition charges at $3,000 per student. The result was an immediate 34 percent jump in enrollment—from 58 to 78 students. Still, a school with 78 students looks painfully small. With more assistance, the numbers might expand still more and make a separate high school seem more inviting to hesitant parents.

Uncommon Schools

Many Jews will readily accept the argument up to this point. But they will still insist that public assistance to religious schools, even in the form of vouchers to parents, is wrong because it threatens public education’s ideal of the common school.

The argument is often phrased in explicitly negative terms. Some Jewish advocates worry that an expansion of religious education will promote an expansion or proliferation of religious attachments. Only last year, an official of the American Jewish Committee remarked at a Baltimore conference on church-state issues that government aid to religious schools is improper because such schools "tend to proselytize."

When we are talking about private schools, where attendance is entirely voluntary, reasonable concerns about religious indoctrination in public schools simply do not apply. Nor is it easy to grasp how indirect government aid to such schools can be seen as "endorsement" of particular sectarian doctrines, when rival doctrines of many sects are equally eligible for such assistance. At bottom, then, the concern seems to boil down to something like this: even if sectarian education is good for the Jews, it might also be good for the Christians and therefore is bad for the Jews.

But in recent decades, the Catholic Church and major Protestant denominations have gone to considerable lengths to eliminate or revise traditional teachings that seemed hostile to Jews. In most American churches, anti-Semitism is not simply a social taboo but a denial of current religious doctrine. In contemporary America, there is no body of reliable evidence to substantiate the concern that Christian religious education will foster intolerance.

Still, public education continues to inspire much Jewish sympathy, as the foundation of a broader public culture in which Jews can fully participate. This attitude is understandable—but sadly anachronistic. The public schools that trained earlier generations of American Jews were the expression of a different America. The sociologist Nathan Glazer captured the point quite well in a personal reminiscence of his experience in the public schools in New York City during the 1930s and early 1940s:

"[N]ot a whiff of cultural pluralism was to be found. Americanization was strong, unselfconscious and self-confident. Although probably two-thirds of the students in New York’s public schools were Jewish or Italian, no Jewish or Italian figure was to be found in our texts for literature, for social studies, for history. All cultures but that of the founding English and its American variant were ignored, and students were left to assume, if they thought about the matter at all, that the cultures of their homes and parental homelands were irrelevant or inferior."

In retrospect, one might wonder whether this sort of relentless "Americanization" was an entirely good thing for the American Jewish community. But the era of "strong, unselfconscious, self-confident" Americanization is, in any case, long gone. In the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, public schools were attacked for promoting a false view of America, in the interests of an oppressive white elite. And schools were quick to adapt to new views. Glazer emphasizes the continuing gap between racial minorities and other Americans as a principal factor in fueling demands for "multiculturalist" approaches. Despite his own concerns about fragmentation and social division, Glazer has emphasized the "inescapability" of the new approach in public education. In fact, In We Are All Multiculturalists Now he acknowledges that "the victory of multiculturalism in the public schools of America" has been "complete."

Since this ideology of public schools is already promoting limitless lifestyle options and respect for all differences, it is hard to refute demands for greater choice by reviving 19th-century slogans about promoting a common culture.

Jewish parents who support public education for their children will still find many excellent, conventional suburban schools. But the question is whether the Jewish community has a stake in "protecting" public education by blocking government vouchers to private and religious alternatives. How much deference should be given to the vision of a common school, when school authorities around the country are now licensing more and more diverse school options? Can it really be in the Jewish interest to see that every sort of diversity has its claim on public support—except religious diversity?