A Largely Unrecognized Civil Right

As we reported last week, President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of prominent school choice advocate Betsy DeVos to serve as the nation’s next Secretary of Education was warmly welcomed by Orthodox Jewish organizations and individuals, as it was by other proponents of educational freedom across the country.

Ms. DeVos, moreover, has a long record of good relations with community askanim, which gives us reason to hope that she will prove receptive to our needs and concerns, both with regard to preventing government intrusion into yeshivah curricula and in the realm of school choice — which the president-elect has pledged to invigorate. Mr. Trump’s signature education proposal is to provide $20 billion in federal money to allow low-income students to select private or charter schools. As governor of Indiana, Vice President-elect Mike Pence championed school choice and favored a smaller federal role in education.

The concept of permitting educational vouchers to be provided to parents to use as they see fit for their children’s education, even at religious schools, was the subject of heated debate for decades in the United States. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, held that school vouchers could indeed be provided to parents to pay for their children’s education in sectarian schools without violating the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause,” opening the door for states or localities to enact school choice programs.

Some Jewish communal groups and public school teachers’ unions and advocates continue to vociferously oppose school choice. Having lost the battle to use the Constitution to prevent educational vouchers, they still contend that providing them to parents does harm to public schools, and they maintain that school choice will not educationally benefit students.

Competition is indeed a threat — to inferior products. Choices, in any market, are invariably a boon to quality, and to the consumer. If, as a result of an educational voucher program, some public schools are indeed forced to shut their doors, it will be because they did not deliver the education they were mandated to provide, and their students will be better off in other schools of their parents’ choice. Other public schools, moreover will be compelled to do a good job, and those that do will, along with their students, thrive.

As to academic achievement, whether school choice can be demonstrated to boost student scores is so far unresolved. More time and data are needed. But support for educational options should rest less on hopes for intensified achievement than on the straightforward justice of allowing parents to choose how their children are educated.

Unfortunately, at present, the idea of allowing parents with strong religious beliefs to make such choices has not yet impelled more than a few states and localities to actually offer educational vouchers to all parents of schoolchildren. There is hope now, though, that having an unapologetic proponent of school choice in the federal administration, and a president who has himself endorsed educational vouchers, will help other states consider the idea of allowing parents to choose their children’s educational environment without having to shoulder the financial burden entirely by themselves.

What more Americans need to come to understand is that there is no reason why parents — all parents — should not have the final say, without penalty, in where their children are educated. It is readily recognized that parents in a pluralistic society like ours have a right to raise their children as they see fit, within the bounds of law, instilling in them the values they hold dear. In Judaism — and surely other belief systems and philosophies — that is not only a right but a deep responsibility. Choosing the right school for a child should be seen as an essential expression of that responsibility.

In our community, schools are famously and chronically strapped for cash, and unable to spend anywhere near as much on each of their students as neighboring public schools spend on theirs. Educational vouchers would allow day schools, yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs to not only better serve their charges but to attract Jewish parents who would otherwise never consider a Jewish education for their children.

Education, in the end, is much more than the transfer of information, much more, even, than training minds to think critically. It includes, most importantly, the imparting of attitudes, ideals and values as well. Parents’ ability to provide their children with an education that reflects their principles and ideals should not be seen as a luxury. It should be regarded as nothing less than a civil right.