Judaism and School Choice

Barry Fagin
Steve Schuck
Eric Sondermann

On November 3rd, Coloradans will vote on Amendment 17: the only school choice initiative in the country. All America will be watching what we do. Unfortunately, while the Christian community has been very visible in the home schooling and school choice movement, the Jewish response has been more subdued.

We believe that support for Amendment 17 fits wholeheartedly within the Jewish tradition of progressive social change, political activism, and Tikkun Olam: the repairing of the world. We hope that both religious and secular Jews who feel conflicted about school choice and their moral obligations to society will benefit from hearing why we, as Jews, support it.

By working for school choice, we continue a long and proud tradition of Jewish social activism. The Old Testament exhortation "Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue .." has been a Jewish creed since the dawn of civilization.

Amendment 17 is our attempt to pursue justice. It represents a direct challenge to a powerful, established institution, one that in our view is not serving the public interest. Viewed in this light, teachers unions and public school administrations are strongly reactionary organizations. They spend millions of dollars every year to kill any threats to their monopoly, and fight substantive reform tooth and nail. We need not look very far for a biblical reference. School choice advocates are David, and the education establishment is Goliath.

Jews have also been in the forefront of science and exploration. Our foremost rabbi of the middle ages, Maimonides, was a prominent physician and scientist. Six Jews sailed with Columbus, including his surgeon and interpreter. In more modern times, Jonas Salk's curiosity about the natural world led him to develop a vaccine for polio. Physicists like Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein have revolutionized our understanding of the world. Jews make up less than 1/4 of one percent of the world's population, but have been awarded more than 20% of the world's Nobel Prizes. We believe all this comes from our long tradition of a love of learning and intellectual discovery.

But discovery is not restricted to the laboratory. One of the most beneficial consequences of a free market is that it finds out things. Markets are humanity's way of discovering what people like and what they don't, what works and what doesn't, how to do something more efficiently, and how to create a world better than the one we have now. Allowing people to take their tax dollars with them should they choose a different school for their children would, finally, encourage innovation and knowledge discovery where it is most desperately needed.

How big should classes be? Should teachers be certified? What approaches work with what kids? How should values be taught? How can we get the best education for the least cost? These are exactly the kind of questions that are best answered through the complex, benevolent, tolerant sphere of private action, where people are given the opportunity to act on the courage of their convictions. It's exactly what markets and voluntary organizations do best.

As long as tax payments are tied to political boundaries and monopoly schools, we will never have the answers to these questions that are so important to the future of children. That's why, as activists for school choice, we believe we are following in the footsteps of our Jewish forebears who helped us learn more about the world.

But in addition to a commitment to using our brains, Jews must also use their hearts. Our Biblical and Talmudic traditions are clear: we are morally obligated to participate in Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world. This includes feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and helping the poor.

It's precisely the poor who stand to benefit the most from school choice. The rich will always be able to send their children wherever they want. Middle and upper middle class families can move to where the best schools are. It's only the poor who are stuck in educational situations that they can't get out of.

But oh, how badly they want to leave. When offered vouchers in inner cities like Indianappolis and Milwaukee, low income families jumped at the chance. The recent announcement of private school scholarships to inner city families in Washington DC by a prominent foundation found them deluged with applications. Are we so sure that the poor can't tell good schools from bad that we can't even let them try?

Our rabbis teach us that giving the poor money is the lowest level of charity. The best charity lifts the poor out of poverty, maintains their dignity, and contributes to a more fulfilling, productive life. We believe school choice embodies all these principles.

Finally, school choice is an opportunity to heal a breach with our Christian brethren. Jews and Christians share a book, but are often divided by politics. As a religious minority, Jews have always taken a keen interest in church and state issues, more often than not opposite Christian conservatives. One of us was a plaintiff in a Supreme Court case opposed by the Christian Coalition. The other is a former gubernatorial candidate who lost the Republican nomination to a Christian conservative in a bitterly fought primary. The third is a Democratic political consultant who has represented numerous pro- choice candidates in heated races against Christian right, pro-life opponents. So none of us are strangers to adversarial relationships with the Christian community.

We believe our experience is not unusual. Many Jews, for example, see a strong fundamentalist presence in the public schools as a threat. Since culturally conservative Christians have actively supported school choice, many Jews have reacted reflexively against it. We believe this position should be re-examined. Jews have always defined themselves by what they are for, not by who they are against. To line up against something solely because a certain group is for it is, we believe, a form of prejudice and intellectual dishonesty. Both are profoundly anti-Jewish.

If Amendment 17 passes, all the bitter debates, the school board shouting matches, and the political infighting will disappear. It will allow those with religious and political differences on fundamental questions to exist in a pluralistic, tolerant environment, by creating schools more supportive of what they value most in life. That's a kind of diversity we can all celebrate.

And that's really the best reason for Jews to support Amendment 17. Judaism has thrived in countries where religious and social tolerance are practiced. There is no finer example of this than America, where Jews have enjoyed unparalleled success and prosperity. Perhaps it's time for us to give something back: peace in America's culture wars.

The rest of the country views Colorado as a cultural battleground. As veterans of that fight, we want to make peace. Peace is so important to the Jewish people that it's the word we say when we greet one another: Shalom. If Amendment 17 passes, Coloradans will have offered one small olive branch in the battle for America's soul. It may not be the same as peace in the Middle East, but we'll take it one step at a time.

Barry Fagin is a professor of computer science and the founder of Families Against Internet Censorship. Steve Schuck is Chairman of Coloradans for School Choice. Both are members of Temple Shalom in Colorado Springs. Eric Sondermann is a Democratic political consultant, and a member of a Denver Havurah.

If you have further questions about Judaism and School Choice, or would like to help pass Amendment 17, please contact Barry Fagin.