Jewish Reflections During ‘National School Choice Week’

Did you hear the big “school choice” news included in the “fiscal cliff” deal? No? The Coverdell Amendment was extended by Congress! Not only extended, but made permanent!

What? Never heard of the Coverdell Amendment? It’s the tax provision that offers a limited exemption on interest that accumulates on “savings accounts.” Withdrawals from these accounts may be used for “qualified” public and private school expenses, including tuition.

I grant you, it is a pretty modest benefit. But for parents facing yeshivah tuitions, every little bit helps. And what truly makes the Coverdell Amendment of such great consequence — even of historical significance — is the fact that it is the first and only federal tax relief measure that helps with the costs of a parent’s private school tuition. That’s why Agudath Israel and other private school groups fought so hard to make it happen.

Over the course of two decades-plus in Washington, I have learned several important lessons regarding the school choice effort.  The first is that if this battle is to be won — and I believe it will be — it will be won incrementally, step by step. Whatever form it takes, we will not achieve school choice overnight.

Twenty years ago you couldn’t even broach the subject on Capitol Hill. Today we have a Supreme Court upholding its constitutionality, and numerous pieces of school choice-oriented legislation introduced every year in Washington and in state capitals. There are currently 39 variations of such programs in 21 states and localities. Without a doubt, school choice has become an important part of our national discourse on “educational reform” and a distinct part of the political landscape.

I am not at all dissuaded by the various school choice challenges — a number of them successful — that we have encountered recently in some courts and legislatures, and even on some ballot measures. Novel ideas and landmark initiatives often move in fits and starts, one step forward in this state, one step back in another. In fact, I would have been surprised if it were any different. Civil rights laws were long in coming, and to those who believe that school choice represents positive movement toward “equal opportunity” in education, it makes sense that it is a winding path. But these challenges in no way speak to school choice’s worthiness or viability.

Nor am I put off by the proposals we’ve seen in some school choice plans that impose counterproductive requirements or target public schools or specific populations. School choice is not meant for certain schools, parents, children or localities. Its power and effectiveness are felt when it is applied as broadly as possible — to children attending all schools — and when it is based on the fundamental idea that parents are the ones best equipped to choose the most appropriate form of education for their children.

At some point, our political leaders will — some are already beginning to — recognize that the improvement of, and investment in, all American education should be our goal, and that increased parental involvement through school choice is the most effective means of achieving that end.

I am encouraged by other developments as well.  Parents of inner-city children have decided to fight bureaucracies that have held their families back and kept them locked in a cycle of poverty and violence. The continuation of the widely popular Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C., demonstrates what a committed community working together — the political leadership, the parent body, the students, and the media — can do when even the White House and the “educational establishment” are determined to close down educational options that could lead to better students and brighter futures.

And, yes, I must take note of the perceptible — though still very fledgling — movement in a small segment of the larger Jewish community that seems prepared to entertain some forms of school choice and other aid to Jewish schools. We often hear the mantra “Jewish education is the key to Jewish survival.” We hear it from all quarters, and anyone willing to admit to the rate of assimilation and alienation among Jewish youth realizes that this is not a mere slogan. But if so, one would think that Jewish education would be at the very top of the Jewish political and communal agenda. After all, is there anything — can there be anything — more important than Jewish survival? Yet for the most part communal support for Jewish education outside of Orthodox circles has been sorely lacking, and strengthening our schools and helping our families provide a Jewish education for our children have hardly appeared on the community’s political agenda. That there are signs, however faint, that this may be changing — unthinkable just a few short years ago — gives me a further measure of hope.

And we are seeing the evidence that Jewish education is being helped.  Our own internal estimate at Agudath Israel is that voucher and tax credit programs generated, during the 2011-12 school year alone, more than $15 million in eight states for families choosing Jewish day school education. This is an impressive start.

So, if there is life after the Coverdell Amendment, what does it look like? The most promising avenue on the school choice horizon these days is through tax legislation establishing “educational scholarship organizations (ESOs),” although known by different names in different federal and state bills. Under this general proposal, individual or corporate donors to ESOs may receive deductions or credits for those contributions. ESOs, in turn, dole out funds to provide for tuition and other public or private school expenses. In recent years, this legislation has been introduced on the federal level and in a number of states, and in the few states where it has passed so far, it has brought in substantial sums to public and private school families. There are political benefits to this legislation that have gained it bipartisan support, including: the general preference — on both legal and budgetary grounds — for a tax-incentive approach over a voucher program, and the fact that ESOs may be set up to provide benefits to both public and private school children.

While Agudath Israel and other school groups have promoted, and continue to promote, such legislation in Congress, it would behoove our constituents around the country to mobilize on the state level and join with other like-minded groups to push for such legislation. School choice is, after all, primarily a state and local issue.

One final, cautionary note:  Our families and our schools are struggling. They are desperate and need help. One part of a possible solution is looking to government for assistance. But we must remember that with government assistance comes government regulation — and we must always adhere to legal requirements. What this ultimately means, however, is that we must draw a line. The most important priority for us is that our schools maintain the religious mission and character upon which they are based.  When government strings in any way undermine the integrity or the values we want our schools to represent and the education we want our children to receive, then we must forgo that assistance — no matter how difficult our straits or how alluring the help. Otherwise we are hurting, rather than helping, our community and our future.

Ultimately, we must remember that government assistance is no panacea. Our families, schools and organizations will have to continue doing their share and making sacrifices, but hopefully with the knowledge that we are so fortunate — indeed  it is a sign of our success and siyatta diShmaya — to be in the position of being able to educate our children to become exemplary in limud haTorah, yiras Shamayim and middos tovos.


 

An attorney, Rabbi Abba Cohen is Agudath Israel of America’s Vice President for Federal Government Affairs and Washington Director. In that capacity, he works with the White House, the Executive Agencies and Congress in advocating for, and advancing, the interests and values of the Orthodox Jewish community.