Jewish Leaders Reconsidering Vouchers

Published March 1, 1999

Although the American Jewish Congress immediately criticized New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s call for an experimental publicly funded school voucher program as not needed, and a violation of the separation of church and state principle, Jewish leaders across the country are beginning to favor of school choice.

The desire of parents to place their child in a learning environment that reflects their own values is not confined to Christianfamilies, but is shared by those of other religious faiths, including Jews, as well as secular families.

At the national level, Jewish Senators Joseph Liebermann (D-Connecticut) and Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan) supported federal block grants to provide locally administered choice scholarship programs for at-risk children. In Michigan, Jewish rabbis and African-American pastors have together been discussing the need for parental choice in education. Last April, the Avi Chai Foundation, a New York City-based Jewish organization, initiated an experimental, privately funded program to provide $3,000 vouchers to help parents enroll their children in Jewish day schools in Cleveland and Atlanta.

“The goal here is to test whether we can increase enrollment in Jewish day schools by reducing the financial burden on parents,” the foundation’s North American executive director, Yossi Prager, told Education Week. Prager noted that the foundation used the term “voucher” rather than “scholarship” because the assistance isn’t means-tested or merit-tested, and parents can choose from several schools.

In Michigan, Rabbi E.B. Freedman, director of Jewish Hospice Services in Southfield, sees Jewish support for school choice as driven by the same concerns that put Jewish leaders in the vanguard of social change in the 1950s: defending civil rights and improving public education. In a recent Detroit News article, Freedman and Bryan Taylor, executive director of TEACH Michigan Education Fund, argue that school choice is an issue of particular importance for minorities, “whose needs can’t possibly be met in a one-size fits all education bureaucracy.”

Groups like the ACLU, they contend, “have made the mistake of believing that because most district schools serve the majority of children well, we shouldn’t allow the minority of children whom the system fails to have any other option.” And Freedman and Taylor quickly dismiss arguments about violating church-state separation.

“Let them argue with Harvard’s Larry Tribe, who says U.S. Supreme Court precedents would support most choice programs, so long as parents are free to choose the school, and the dollars follow the child,” they respond.