Sheldon Kamins


Jewish World Review / June 24, 1998 / 30 Iyar, 5758

The D.C. education problem, and Jewry's

By Sheldon B. Kamins

DESPITE SPENDING $10,000 per pupil in the D.C. public school system, the majority of 10th graders are scoring below basic performance levels in reading and 89 percent are scoring below basic proficiency in math.

The D.C school district outspends almost every other school district in the nation and yet it has a 40 percent high school drop out rate. So, last month, the Congress voted to provide 2,000 scholarships to low-income families in the District of Columbia. This scholarship plan would have allowed parents to send their children to the school of their choice, public or private. The plan passed both the House and Senate but the President -- because his party is in the vice-grip of the public education establishment -- vetoed the plan. President Clinton's veto should concern the Jewish community as well as the 60 percent of the African American community that supports just such a plan in D.C.

As Jews, we have a vested interest in helping families attend the schools of their choice. Our public schools are failing and students of all religions and economic backgrounds are suffering. One solution would be for the legislatures and governors of the various states to enact a scholarship plan for their residents. Perhaps, at these local levels, we can begin to help low-income families provide their children with the same educational opportunities that the more well-to-do families provide theirs. It's a matter of fairness, opportunity, education, and, above all, equity. After all, those of us who can afford to send our children to private schools don't very often consign our children to schools that simply aren't meeting the standards we set for ourselves or want for our children.

At fundamental levels, there are two reasons we Jews should support such scholarship plans. First, Jews have always been concerned and affiliated with a strong commitment to an education system that not only serves us, but the rest of the population as well. We have long believed that what is good for America is good for Jews.

Yet, there is no question that today's American public school system is not good for anyone. Just this year, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study revealed that American 12th graders placed third from the bottom in math and sixth from the bottom in science. Thankfully, this study only included 21 nations and excluded Asia. Forty percent of all ten-year-olds cannot pass basic literacy tests and over 30 percent of all college freshman have to take remedial courses in math and English. It is a tragedy that children from low-income families are forced to attend schools where 20 percent of high school students carry fire arms, knives, or other weapons. These are not numbers or environments that bode well for our students or our future. These are not numbers or environments that bode well for any community because the learning environment of any community of students, like stones cast into a still pond, affects surrounding communities down the line.

The second reason the Jewish community should support such scholarship programs is that every Jewish organization concerned with the fate of American Judaism has been lamenting the current trends in assimilation. Scholars from both sides of the political spectrum agree that Jewish education is the greatest deterrent to rising assimilation. Alan Dershowitz, author of The Vanishing American Jew, and Elliott Abrams, author of Faith or Fear, concur: Jewish day schools are the keys to Jewish continuity.

In fact, a recent report commissioned by the Council of Jewish Federations concluded that "intensive Jewish education is our most powerful vehicle for Jewish growth" and that best vehicle for such growth is "to make day school education available and affordable to all who might want it." The scholarship program would do just that.

Some, however, believe that empowering parents to use such scholarships to send their children to private schools will erode the separation between church and state. This fear is unfounded. Under the program I'm suggesting, parents will have the option of using their scholarships to send their children to either non-sectarian schools or schools with the affiliations of their choice.

The parents could and should decide for themselves what kinds of schools best match their educational objectives. For those who want to send their children to Jewish schools, the Supreme Court has held that when individuals spend the money (as opposed to the government directing money to the schools), there is no First Amendment violation. This is why those who spent their GI Bill funds at Yeshiva University or Notre Dame did not violate the Establishment Clause any more than they did when they spent their funds at Columbia or Stanford.

In sum, the scholarship program is the most readily apparent solution to the problems our children are facing in our failing public schools as well as the problems we face with the rising rates of assimilation and intermarriage. The scholarship program would also stimulate the competition necessary for our public schools to put their houses in order and compete for students.

As a matter of simple consumer choice, we know that competition drives excellence (remember what it did for our auto industry when consumers started buying Japanese cars). The time has come for us to realize that parents should have the ability to choose the schools they want to send their children to rather than the current systems where schools and school districts choose the children.

Simply spending more money on the public schools (given that we know economic input does not equal cognitive output) would be akin to putting lounge-chairs on the Titanic. If we recognize this and support scholarship programs, we will be well on our way to solving America's education problems as well as American Jewry's assimilation.

New JWR contributor Sheldon B. Kamins is the Chairman of the Jewish Policy Center, a politically conservative think tank based in Washington, DC.


©1998, Jewish World Review