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No Lost Irony

No Lost Irony

On Thursday morning, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a "field" hearing on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), or the D.C. school vouchers program at Archbishop Carroll High School, where a large percentage of the students receive these vouchers.

The Reform Movement has a long history of opposing voucher programs, not only because we believe in the importance of supporting and maintaining a robust, high-quality and high-performing public school system, but also because a large portion of voucher dollars got to parochial schools, compromising church-state separation.The irony of having the hearing at this location was not lost on those of us in attendance who work on this issue from a church-state separation perspective.

Vouchers are ultimately harmful to education because they divert money from public schools (where a majority of all school-age children are enrolled) to private schools (where the public has no 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 voucher is almost never enough money to help a poor child 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 - which thereby keeps the cost out of the reach of most families -- nor require participating schools to accept all applicants.

The "choice" in "choice programs" thus lies with private school administrators, not with parents. Many civic groups have touted vouchers as a solution to our country's educational woes, but calls for vouchers are symptoms of problems with our educational system that require us to invest money and creativity into our public schools rather than contribute to their difficulties by taking away needed funding and support.

In advance of the hearing, three D.C. Reform rabbis sent a letter to the House committee urging the members not to reauthorize the vouchers program. Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser, Associate Rabbi at Temple Sinai, Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel, Senior Rabbi at Temple Micah and Rabbi Susan N. Shankman, Rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation wrote to the committee explaining that,

"As rabbis, we believe firmly in the importance of education – both Jewish and secular. We read each day in the Shema prayer of the Torah's emphasis on education, “v'shi-nan-tam l'vanecha,” you must teach [God's law] to your children (Deuteronomy 6:7). Yet, we also believe that religious education should be privately funded by and supported by the respective religious community, and that we must have a robust public, tax-payer-funded school system to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality education."

The letter also notes how ineffective the D.C. voucher program is, even with the stated objections to such a program in the first place,

"We also believe that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program should not be reauthorized because the program is unsuccessful.  The four federal Department of Education studies[1] and the 2007 General Accountability Office (GAO) study[2] prove that the program is not improving student achievement, access to student resources, student motivation, or student perceptions of safety. Additionally, private schools do not need to meet the same public accountability standards that all public schools must meet, including those in Title IX, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)."

Read the full letter here.

The work continues on to improve public education and to protect church-state separation. As Jews, we know that "using public funds for non-public elementary and secondary schools, believing that such aid would infringe the separation of church and state and have damaging impact on public schools," as stated in a 1972 URJ resolution.

Learn more about our work on school vouchers.