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Protecting the Wall, Supporting Our Schools; The Reform Movement's Campaign for Public Education

A publication of
the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism


Excerpts from Rabbi Eric Yoffie's President's Message Concerning Supporting Public Education

URJ Resolution on Public Education

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Excerpts from Rabbi Eric Yoffie's
President's Message
at the 66th URJ Biennial
Boston, Massachusetts
December 8, 2001

Support for vouchers is rarely justified in such parochial terms. Supporters claim that their goal is to help the poor and improve public education by creating competition. But this is disingenuous. You don't assist public schools by taking their funding and putting it elsewhere. You don't help the inner cities by creating a program that will mostly benefit the middle-class and the wealthy. The people who engineer voucher proposals are almost always those with no interest in maintaining the public schools and whose real aim to is secure funding for their own schools. Protestant groups want money for their private academies, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy wants subsidies for its parochial school system. We can now add to the list Jewish organizations that have supported vouchers, or remained silent, hoping to secure funding for yeshivas and Jewish day schools.

I am embarrassed and ashamed when I hear such arguments coming from Jews. The public schools were the ladder that we used to climb from poverty to affluence in American life, and how dare we deny it to others. And I tremble for our nation when I hear the constant drumbeat of attack on our public school system. The public schools take the poor and the handicapped, the abused and the foster children, the Christian and the Muslim, the Roman Catholic and the Jew. They do more of God's work in a day than most institutions do in a lifetime. If our public schools are broken, then let's fix them, but let's not destroy them in the name of a highfalutin principle that is often nothing more than naked self-interest dressed up as caring.

And this too: supporters of vouchers would have us believe that Jews have nothing to fear from a more flexible definition of the First Amendment. Oh, really? What makes America the freest and most stable society in which we Jews have ever lived is a Constitution that is our shelter and sanctuary. It is no accident that the period of dramatic flourishing of American Jewry was marked by great strides in church-state separation. This fundamental American principle made Joe Lieberman possible, and ten Jewish senators and twenty-seven Jewish representatives. And don't tell me that these gains are not being placed at risk. When mainstream groups began supporting the use of taxpayer money to fund religious schools through student vouchers, it was no great leap to propose that federal money also be spent to increase the social services that religious groups provide. The voucher proposal gave us the faith-based initiatives proposal, and we can only imagine what will be next.

This is not a theoretical issue. Next year the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of school vouchers, and there is an even chance that it will approve them in some form. If that happens, voucher proposals will be presented to state legislatures throughout the country. I propose to this Biennial Assembly that we make known here and now our opposition to school vouchers and proclaim our intention to fight them. I propose that we declare once again our support for public education as the last bastion of true democracy. I urge that we proclaim what all of us know but some of us have forgotten: that the First Amendment is the cornerstone of our security and freedom, and we will never take its liberties for granted.


INTRODUCTION

Historically, the American Jewish community, and the Reform Movement in particular, have been strong supporters of our public school system, keeping with the values laid out by Maimonides who wrote that "any city that does not have a school in it shall be cut off [from all contact] until they find a teacher for the children" (Hilchot Talmud Torah 2:1). While Maimonides was writing specifically about Jewish communities, his teaching reflects the Jewish community's long and deep commitment to publicly financed education. In North America, we have interpreted this value as a special obligation to support our public schools.

Today, with some public schools failing to meet the needs of our nation's children, policy makers have increasingly been attracted to new and innovative methods of school improvement and education reform. The Reform Movement has supported much of this experimentation, by working, for example, in support of reducing class size, rebuilding and upgrading public school facilities, increasing school choice programs within public schools and offering cautious support for charter schools.

Not all "innovations" are welcome, however. School vouchers and tuition tax-credit programs, for example, are advanced as a means of addressing the nation's educational woes and also of assisting families who send their children to private and parochial schools. Yet, vouchers are of serious concern to the Reform Jewish Movement, as they are not only a threat to the future viability of public education, but they also promote a dangerous entanglement of church and state. The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear three cases related to a voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio. The Court's ruling is of the utmost importance, for it will determine the constitutionality of school vouchers. The Reform Movement, along with many other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations - including the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the United Methodist Church, the National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) - oppose voucher programs because of their dubious constitutionality and potentially destructive effect on the nation's education system.

JEWISH VALUES AND PUBLIC EDUCATION

The Jewish commitment to public education dates back to the time of the Torah and Talmud. It is taught that "children are not to be sent [every day to school] from one town to another" because of the danger involved. Rather, parents had the right to demand that a town appoint, and pay, the appropriate number of teachers. "Raba said: The number of students for one teacher should be twenty-five. If there are fifty students, they appoint two; if there are forty, they appoint an assistant, who is supported by the funds of the town" (BT Baba Batra 22a).

We read each day in the Shema of the Torah's emphasis on education - v'shi-nan-tam l'vanecha - you must teach [God's law] to your children (Deuteronomy 6). Rambam (Maimonides) taught that this responsibility is not just a responsibility of parents, but of anyone who has the ability to teach; that it is a "commandment on each and every wise person to teach every student, even though they are not their children" since "the students that one teaches are called one's children" (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "The Laws of Talmud Torah" Chapter 1, Law 2). He also taught that "it is the custom of the government to give a salary to the one who teaches children and to provide a teacher until the student has learned the entire Torah" (Ibid, Law 7).

The Jewish commitment to public education has only strengthened over time. In a 1998 resolution adopted by the Commission on Social Action, for example, the Reform Movement vowed to "continue to support public education by giving high priority to educating our nation's children and instilling a sense of urgency about the challenges facing public education in our synagogues, in the larger community, and among our elected officials."

The Reform Jewish Movement has long stood in strong support of public education recognizing that:

  • An educated population is the cornerstone of democracy. The United States' well-being depends on the decisions of its educated, informed citizens;
  • 90 percent of all school-aged children are enrolled in public schools;
  • Because public schools operate under strict compliance with antidiscrimination laws, public schools are the only schools that must meet the needs of every student, including those with physical, emotional and mental disabilities, as well as those who are extremely gifted, with no bias against any race, creed or gender;
  • Public schools serve to promote tolerance and diversity, fostering, interactions and understanding among people of different ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds;
  • Public schools teach students about the meaning of American citizenship and cultivate a community of informed citizens;
  • Contemporary society has a strong need for an educated workforce. More than 95 percent of our future jobs will require a high school or college degree;
  • Public education fosters community development, involvement and growth. Better public schools create stronger communities and strong communities build a stronger nation; and
  • Public education is a worthy investment for public funds.

When we invest in public education, we invest in our children and our nation's future.

SCHOOL VOUCHERS

School voucher programs threaten the future of public education. Vouchers are a form of government subsidy given to parents for use towards tuition and other school-related expenses in private and parochial schools. Sometimes referred to as scholarships, certificates, portability, or choice programs, these funding schemes are all, in fact, vouchers. Voucher proposals differ somewhat in purpose, operation, outcomes, and consequences, but each, ultimately, paves the way to a private school system funded by taxpayers, yet free of public control and oversight.

Vouchers are harmful to education because they divert money from public schools (where 90 percent of all school-age children are enrolled) to private schools (where the public has little control over how those public dollars are spent), while doing nothing to improve public education. Although many school voucher programs ostensibly aim to assist low-income and minority students, a $1,500 or even $3,000 voucher is usually not enough to help poor children make the leap to private school. Most proposed voucher programs neither prohibit participating schools from charging tuition and fees in excess of the value of the voucher - keeping the cost out of the reach of many families - nor require participating schools to accept all applicants. Indeed, according to a survey of private schools conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, most private schools would decline to participate in a voucher program that required them to accept students with disabilities or, in the case of parochial schools, to refrain from including their religious mission in their education. The "choice" in "choice programs" thus lies with private school administrators, not with parents.

THE EFFECTS OF VOUCHERS ON PUBLIC EDUCATION

Funding: Where they have been implemented, vouchers have drained crucial funds from public school districts:

  • From 1998-99, about 6,000 Milwaukee students received vouchers worth about $5,000 each, for a total cost about $29 million. (Source: Tax Funding for Private School Alternatives: The Financial Impact on Milwaukee Public Schools and Taxpayers, Institute for Wisconsin's Future, 1998.)

  • From 1998-99, 3,744 Cleveland students received vouchers, worth up to $2,500 each, totaling about $9 million. However, additional transportation and administrative costs brought the total cost to more than $10 million. The voucher money came from state funds earmarked for disadvantaged public school students. (Source: State of Ohio, The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, January 1999.)

  • In San Antonio, Texas' Edgewood school district, the privately funded Horizon Scholarship program will take some $4.5 million in state funds away from the district next year. Because public schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, for every student who uses a $4,000 Horizon voucher for a private school, the Edgewood district loses $5,800 that would have come from the state for that student's enrollment. The overhead costs of maintaining public schools have only a marginal decrease compared to the loss of revenue resulting from diverting public funds to private schools. So far, 837 students have accepted vouchers. Horizon vouchers are drawing resources away from an extremely poor district that had been steadily improving by reducing its dropout rate, improving scores on state tests, opening new magnet programs, and establishing Advanced Placement programs in its high schools. (Source: "Edgewood Under Siege," The Texas Observer, March 5, 1999.)

Student Achievement: In general, evaluations of voucher students' achievement show little or no improvements relative to comparable public school students:

  • In Milwaukee, an evaluation of the first five years of the voucher program by University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor John Witte shows no achievement differences between voucher students and comparable Milwaukee Public School students. The results are consistent with years of research showing no significant achievement differences between private and public school students, once background characteristics or course-taking are taken into account. (Source: John Witte et al, Fifth Year Report: Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1995; and Achievement Effects of the Milwaukee Voucher Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1997.)

  • A state-sponsored independent evaluation of Cleveland's voucher program for the first year, conducted by researchers at Indiana University, found no significant achievement differences in all subjects between voucher students and comparable Cleveland public school students. In a second-year evaluation, there was no achievement difference in math, English, science and social studies, with only a slight advantage for voucher students in language arts. (Sources: Kim Metcalf, et al, A Comparative Evaluation of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program and Evaluation of the Cleveland Scholarship Program, Second Year Report, 1997-98, Indiana University, 1998.)

  • Harvard University's Paul Peterson, along with Mathematica, a policy research organization known for its high-quality, objective research, evaluated New York City's privately funded voucher program for 1,300 low-income students in grades one through five. On reading and math tests, Peterson found a small difference in favor of the voucher students in grades two through five. Peterson's report notes that the voucher students were in smaller schools with smaller class sizes; research shows both are significant factors in higher student achievement. (Source: Paul Peterson, David Myers, and William Howell, An Evaluation of the New York City School Choice Scholarship Program: The First Year, October 1998).

VOUCHER BATTLES IN THE COURTS

Florida: Under Florida's private school voucher program - the first statewide voucher plan passed in the United States - public schools received a grade, from A to F, based on standardized test scores. Schools that scored well got extra money from the state, but students in schools that received an "F" were eligible for a $4,000 voucher at any private school that accepted them, including religious schools. Public schools lost the funds that students took to private schools. State Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. struck down Florida's school voucher program on March 14, 2000, concluding that, "By providing state funds for some students to obtain a K-12 education through private schools as an alternative to the high quality education available through the system of free public schools, the legislature has violated the mandate of the Florida Constitution, adopted by the electorate of this state."

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: The Milwaukee voucher program allows for state money to be used specifically for religious schools. The program provides vouchers for up to $5,000 per year - the estimated cost of educating a child in the public schools - to as many as 15,000 of the district's 100,000 students. The grants are given to the poorest students. This year, they have been used at 122 private schools in the city, 89 of which are parochial. The Wisconsin State Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the program. In response, voucher opponents brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the high court to define the program as unconstitutional and overrule the Wisconsin State Court decision. In November, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the case and sidestepped, at that time, the national debate over whether taxpayer-financed vouchers may be used to send children to parochial schools.

Cleveland, Ohio: More than 4,000 students from kindergarten through grade six have signed up for as much as $2,500 in tuition vouchers for private schools in Cleveland's program. Almost all (96 percent) of the 56 schools involved in the program are religious institutions. The Cleveland voucher program was deemed unconstitutional by both state and federal courts, and on September 24, 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the final appeal. A ruling is expected in May.

THE (UN)CONSTITUTIONALITY OF SCHOOL VOUCHERS

Because many voucher schemes allow tax dollars to be used at parochial schools, the constitutionality of voucher programs comes into question. For the most part, thus far, the courts have ruled that such proposals amount to government funding of religious institutions and therefore violate of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. State courts in Pennsylvania, Vermont and Maine have struck down voucher aid to religious schools. Only the Wisconsin Supreme Court has upheld vouchers.

A key ruling on the constitutionality of vouchers will come this spring, when the U.S. Supreme Court announces its decision on three cases relating to the Cleveland voucher program. In December, 2000, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Cleveland voucher program, stating that "there is no neutral aid when that aid principally flows to religious institutions." Because school vouchers would seriously threaten the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court's consideration of vouchers marks a crucial point in the debate over the separation of church and state, making this case, potentially, the most important case about public schools and religious liberty in decades.

JEWISH VALUES AND SCHOOL VOUCHERS

The Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism oppose vouchers, while the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America supports them. The Orthodox Movement is a proponent of vouchers because, through such programs, yeshivot and Jewish day schools would gain government funding. About 90 percent of American Jews belong to the Reform and Conservative Movements, both of which oppose vouchers, and an overwhelming majority of American Jews attend public schools. Reform Jewish day schools have a unique and indispensable role to play in contributing to the growth and vitality of the American Jewish community. In 1985, the URJ General Assembly resolved to endorse Reform Jewish day schools and to encourage the establishment of additional day schools. At the same time, the URJ reaffirmed its continued strong support of the public school systems of North America.

The Reform Movement opposes vouchers for the following reason:

  • Vouchers threaten the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty;
  • The government could exert more control over religious institutions;
  • Voucher funding is a small bandage over a large wound;
  • Vouchers do not guarantee school choice;
  • Public schools are the heart of American identity; and
  • Jewish education is important, but government funding is inappropriate and illegal.

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO SUPPORT PUBLIC EDUCATION AND COMBAT VOUCHERS?

Congregations can be powerful advocacy groups for public education initiatives. By speaking against public funding of private and parochial schools, congregation members make it clear to policy makers that not all religious groups support public funding for religious education. By speaking out for increased public school funding and thus overall improvement of public education, congregations show policy makers their commitment to ensure that all Americans - not just the members of a specific interest group - receive a good education.

To defend the future of public education and the separation of church and state, opposition to voucher proposals must continue to come from religious communities. In Florida, rabbis and social action chairs used the Religious Action Center's opposition guide as a resource to deliver sermons, hold study sessions and speak out against Florida's voucher plan. Congregations in Pennsylvania and Texas were also successful in their opposition activities.

Here are some suggestions for how to get involved:

  • Contact your local PTA school board or teacher's union and find out what they are doing to oppose vouchers in your area. Ask if there are any existing pro-public education/anti-voucher coalitions which you or your congregation can join.

  • Encourage your state government to adopt a Class Size Reduction Project. Substantial research has shown that class size reduction in the early grades leads to higher student achievement. The benefits of smaller classes are greatest for disadvantaged and minority students. The success of class size reduction projects within public schools serves as a powerful argument for support of public education alternatives to school vouchers. For more information on such programs, visit www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/ClassSize/localsuccess.html

  • Hold a special "Teacher Shabbat" to honor public school teachers in your community. Encourage your congregational youth to invite their teachers to the service to show their appreciation. Materials to help you implement such a program are available on the RAC website at: www.rac.org/pubs/teachers.html

  • Have your synagogue adopt a so-called "failing" or disadvantaged school in your community. This may include fundraising to provide the school with new school supplies and textbooks, or provide in new uniforms and equipment for school athletic, art and music programs. It may include bringing members of your congregation to the school to hold a "school clean-up day." It may also include encouraging high school students and adults to serve as tutors and after-school mentors for students at your adopted school. To learn about one such successful tutoring program at Rodef Sholom synagogue in Youngstown, Ohio, visit www.rac.org/social/serviceed.html (See "After School Tutoring").

  • Conduct interfaith programs at your synagogue or at local churches to promote public education. This may include working with groups, such as the Interfaith Alliance, People for the American Way, National Education Association, and others, that bring in speakers to discuss the values of public education and the dangers of school voucher plans. It may also include organizing an interfaith after-school academic enrichment program. Such a program would not only support and enhance the public school system, it would also enrich interfaith relationships within your community. To learn about a similar program, called Help Educate And Restore Trust (HEART) that was started by members of Temple Sinai in Worcester, MA, visit:www.rac.org/social/serviceed.html .

  • Hold a state advocacy day with other congregations - both Jewish and non-Jewish - from your state. Visit your state Capital to meet with your state legislators or conduct a letter-writing campaign to advocate for support of public education. Lobby with your local school boards, PTAs and other religious groups opposed to vouchers, as well. Inform your local officials of the benefits of public education and the dangers of school vouchers. Involve your congregation's youth groups in your lobbying efforts, for their voices and first-hand experiences in the public schools may have a powerful effect.

  • Attend school board and PTA meetings to voice your opinion about public education and school voucher plans.

  • Run for school board or PTA positions. The Christian Coalition encourages its members to do so, and as a result they have a powerful influence on the schools with which they are involved. Establish a presence of your own!

  • Encourage your rabbi, if he or she has not done so already, to develop relationships with local school officials, such as principals, teachers and school board members. Such relationships can be helpful in preventing certain problems from coming up, such as exams scheduled on Passover or the High Holidays. In addition, it establishes the rabbi as someone to whom the school officials will turn whenever issues involving church/state relations arise.

RESOURCES

For further information on supporting public schools, consult the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Other education resources:

National Education Association (NEA)
The NEA is the union and advocacy group for public school employees across the country. They are involved in grassroots educational activity and in legislative advocacy in DC and the states. They have tremendous resources on the benefits of public schools and are effective at tracking legislation affecting public education. (The NEA served as a resource for much of the material found in this document.)
Website:www.nea.org
1201 16th St., NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 833-4000

American Federation of Teachers (AFT), AFL-CIO
AFT, also a teacher's union, has been a major force for preserving and strengthening America's democratic commitment to public education. They have good resources on vouchers and funding for public education.
Website: www.aft.org
555 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
Telephone: (202) 879-4453

National Parent-Teacher Association (PTA)
The PTA is a volunteer association that works in communities and in Washington, DC, on behalf of families and children. They are strongly committed to public education and have good resources on vouchers and education funding.
Website: www.pta.org
1090 Vermont Ave. NW, Suite 1200
Washington, DC 20005-4905
Telephone: (202) 289-6790

U.S. Department of Education
An excellent source for studies, research, educational guidelines, and education news.
Website: www.ed.gov
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202
Telephone: (800)USA-LEARN

People for the American Way (PFAW)
PFAW conducts research, legal and education work, as well as monitors and researches the Religious Right movement and its political allies. The organization is a premier source of vital information for policymakers, scholars and activists nationwide. They are a good resource for information on vouchers and public education.
Website: www.pfaw.org
2000 M Street, NW, Suite 400
Washington, DC 20036
Telephone: 202-467-4999 or 800-326-7329

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU)
AU works to protect the constitutional principle of church-state separation. Mandatory prayer in public schools, tax dollars for parochial schools, government intrusion into religious affairs and meddling in partisan politics by religious groups are among the troubling issues that AU works to resolve. AU is another great resource for information on school vouchers.
Website: www.au.org
518 C Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
Telephone: (202) 466-3234

"Protecting the Wall, Supporting Our Schools; The Reform Movement's Campaign for Public Education" was written and produced by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director; Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director; Rabbi Marc Israel, Director of Congregational Relations. Legislative Asssistant Elana Erdstein and Communications Coordinator Alexis Rice assisted in the production of this report. For more information regarding supporting our public schools legislation or for additional print copies of this publication, visit the RAC website at http://www.rac.org, or call (202) 387-2800.



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