There are three distinct ways to look at school vouchers.
One is to regard them as a bogeyman threatening to destroy the American public educational system and undermine the sublime values that system instills in its students. Call that the “teachers unions” approach.
The second is to regard them as a lifeline for poor parents, a means of allowing those without means to provide their children a chance to escape failing public schools.
That was President Bush’s approach in his final State of the Union address, wherein he lauded the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program Congress approved at the beginning of 2004. That enactment permitted more than 2600 of the poorest children in Washington, previously enrolled in the District’s poorly performing public schools, to transfer to nonpublic schools, including religious ones, of their parents’ choice. The President went on to propose a “Pell Grants for Kids” initiative, intended to help children “trapped in failing public schools” attend private and religious schools, presumably along the lines of the D.C. program.
But the reference to Pell Grants – which provide need-based grants to low-income students for postsecondary education – was somewhat puzzling. Because the Pell Grant model applied to younger students would be a reflection of the third way of approaching school vouchers.
That would be to regard them as something more than a “next stop” after a child has been sentenced to wasted years – or worse – in a failing school. To regard them, instead, as the empowerment of a fundamental parental right: the right to educate one’s children as one wishes them to be educated.
Pell Grants are not just for students in failing public colleges, but for all students whose families could not otherwise afford to continue their educations. The theory is straightforward: Wealthy students have access to quality higher education, poorer ones do not. Let government do what it can to level the playing field, allowing more young people who otherwise would end up in menial jobs (or worse) become accountants, scientists, doctors, lawyers or teachers themselves – and taxpayers.
The logic of allowing for more educational choice is even more compelling when it comes to the early years of educational careers, when children’s minds and morals are molded by their school experiences. Even a plan like the D.C. initiative can only be accessed by parents after their child has languished in a failing school. And when that child has been released from his or her internment, perhaps even scarred by the experience, any siblings will have to do their own time before they, too, can qualify for a better educational environment.
And is there any reason why parents – all parents – should not have the final say in where their children are educated? We readily recognize 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 right and responsibility.
Education, after all, is much more than the transfer of information, much more, even, than training minds to think. It is the imparting of attitudes, ideals and values as well, particularly today, when so often both parents (when there even are two) are working (sometimes at multiple jobs), and when children (even when they are at home) are regularly left to their own devices (and those of the virtual child-molester we call television). It would be folly to deny that schools help shape a child’s development. Should parents not have the final say about which ones nurture their young?
Public school advocates – including those who enjoy the option of being able to afford private schools for their own children even while opposing governmental policies that would extend that option to those less financially fortunate – say no. But they are responding from fear. Unfounded fear, to boot. The public school system qua system will only benefit from true school choice. Were all American parents able to send their children to the schools of their choice, some individual public schools might indeed wither away from lack of interest. But that’s just the fate of any inferior product in the face of competition. Choices, though, are always a boon to quality, and to the consumer. Public schools that do the job they are supposed to do will surely continue to thrive.
The constitutionality of vouchers once made for interesting legal debate, but the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that the concept of providing parents educational vouchers with which to guide their children’s education does not violate the Constitution. So school choice is both logical and legal.
And compelling. There is straightforward justice in empowering parents to choose how their children are educated, to exercise what is perhaps, the most important civil right of all.
© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay appeared, with a different title, on February 4, 2008 in The New York Sun.]