Friday, June 28, 2002

Win Some, Lose Some

What a strange, unpredictable, contradictory and wonderful country this is. The day after two verbally challenged judges on one of our most important courts ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional, by the narrowest of margins the Supreme Court upheld the use of public vouchers to help pay the tuition of children in religious schools.

It’s the American way to give a bit to everyone, to believe that there’s enough to go around. We get something to applaud and something to kvetch about. Of course, things aren’t that simple; there is never symmetry. Inevitably, some get more and others get less. In the religion decisions, the pro-religion forces come away with more, if only because the Pledge issue is far more symbol than substance, while vouchers can have a significant impact on education.

The Pledge decision is a tidbit, a passing bit of judicial lunacy that is a delightful diversion from the bad economic news. We did not need, however, one more proof to Schick’s maxim that when spoken to black-robed people in high benches, “Your Honor” are the two most dishonest words in America.

The voucher ruling will have legs, but not necessarily in the direction or extent suggested by enthusiasts for school choice. I have advocated government aid to parochial schools for more than forty years and I am happy about the outcome in the Supreme Court. I also believe that what most ails America’s schools most often happens outside of their doors, in the home and on the street and via cultural stimuli directed at the young that erode their capacity to learn and also their values. As the Edison and Charter School experiments have quickly demonstrated, it is far easier to talk about improving schools than it is to deliver the goods. Both of those movements are already in trouble.

Still, many – probably in the tens of thousands – of students will benefit because their parents will not be locked into a single choice. I am especially happy for Black families that will be helped, families that have suffered from the pieties of many in the liberal camp who in their faith in public schools (no matter how rotten some are) are content to condemn Black children to lives of educational failure and much worse later on.

As a practical matter, school choice usually means Catholic institutions and they will gain from the ruling, although probably not enough to stem their enrollment decline or to relieve them of the difficulties that have greatly diminished their religious character.

The immediate impact on Jewish schools is certain to be extremely limited and this may be true down the road. For all of the Orthodox – and some other – Jewish elation over the Supreme Court ruling, the celebration may be premature and very much overdone. Day school enrollment is sharply concentrated in New York and other states whose constitutions contain provisions that go beyond the First Amendment in restricting government aid to parochial schools.

Studies show that to the extent that high tuition charges are a disincentive to enrolling children in day schools, middle income families that are marginal in their religiosity are the most directly affected. They usually are not eligible for scholarship assistance and they must establish financial priorities, the outcome being that day schools often lose out. It’s not likely that vouchers will help anytime soon because the arrangements in place contain a means test that rule them out. This isn’t likely to change, if only because states are not going to extend voucher eligibility to more affluent families.

Another roadblock, one that affects schools more than parents, are provisions in voucher legislation that mandate a lottery or open enrollment that require participating schools to admit applicants irrespective of their religious affiliation. Too little attention is being given to this requirement which already has affected several Jewish day schools in communities that offer vouchers.

The problem is not that Jewish schools will be ineligible because they do not accept this condition but rather that they will be too eager to alter their admission policies to accept children who aren’t Jewish by any definition. This issue is boiling beneath the surface of day school education as a surprising, perhaps shocking, number of schools now accept non-Jews. When we consider the minimalist Judaic curriculum and commitment in certain of our day schools, the admission of non-Jews would inevitably result in the further dilution of an institution’s Jewish mission.

As organized American Jewry’s interest in day schools grew in the 1990’s and new schools were established, I cautioned that many day schools would emerge as the Talmud Torahs or supplementary schools of the 21st century, institutions that are too feeble Jewishly to ensure the Jewish continuity of their students. Another way of expressing this development is to recognize that what we comfortably call a day school means nothing more than a private school with some form of Jewish sponsorship. To the extent that vouchers may make a difference, it may well be in furthering this lamentable trend.

There is a final concern that trumps all of the rest. For all of their good intentions, government programs are viewed by some as invitations to financial abuse. We have had enough examples that this is a real, not abstract, concern. The temptation is especially great in education because of the relentless financial pressure facing many schools.

Can we hope that in approaching vouchers and other governmental programs, school officials will recognize that, as with the nation, what they do must be under G-D? At a minimum, this emphatically means no Chilul Hashem, no desecration of G-D’s name in the pursuit of money.
This is the last column until the summer’s end. I hope that readers will have a good and restful two months and that during this period some will consider the financial plight of day schools and do their best to help.

Monday, June 24, 2002

Why Not Civil Disobedience?

When Meir Kahane was murdered, I was asked by Newsday to write an op-ed piece on the legacy of the Jewish Defense League leader. What I remember most about the article is the suggestion that Kahane gave Jewish militancy a bad name, that because of his extremism and recklessness he made Jews uncomfortable about responding to anti-Semitic threats with militant language and activity.

We continue to be uncomfortable, although there are reasons aplenty why we should change our tactics and more boldly confront Israel’s enemies. I know, as I must have known years ago, that our aversion to militancy arises from sources far more deep-rooted than our discomfort with the JDL. Even as the Hitlerian genocide unfolded and even during the darkest days of the Holocaust, most American Jews and certainly our organizations rejected confrontational actions. We did not like boycotts – surely a gentle form of protest – and we did not want to accuse our government of being indifferent to the fate of American Jewry. That was for the fringe, for the likes of Peter Bergson and Ben Hecht whom we marginalized without bothering to consider that they may be right.

The plight of European Jewry was one more cause, one more item on the public affairs agenda of American Jewry. The murder of millions of Jews was to be addressed through conventional means. We met with members of Congress, lobbied and petitioned the White House, held rallies and made and listened to speeches. In the main, we were preaching to the converted. Our rhetoric begot the rhetoric of office holders and seekers. We asked for little and got even less.

Israel’s crisis is like no other in the Jewish State’s more than fifty years of survival in a dangerous environment. Israel’s right to exist is being challenged, not only by Palestinians and many others in the Arab and Islamic worlds, but also by important voices within the western intelligentsia and the media. We can regard this situation as just another difficult problem confronting Israel, so that a conventional response on our part would be adequate. Or we can regard what is now happening as a clear and present danger, thereby requiring different and probably a less conventional and more confrontational response.

I believe that we must reconsider our communal strategy in the light of contemporary events. Our continued reliance on demonstrations, speeches and platitudes from politicians is to invite much sound and fury signifying nothing. I do not know of another group or movement that confronted with a crisis of the magnitude that now confronts all who care about Israel would continue to play it safe. There is no pain in what we do – for all of our kvetching, we remain supremely comfortable – and consequently there is little or no gain.

We can learn from causes that have upped the ante by taking steps and risks that gave substance to their feelings. Whatever history or we may say of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, by inviting imprisonment they rose above the mundane and forced the world to pay attention. They knew that their civil disobedience could not be ignored or written off as merely self-serving. To gain respect for their cause and freedom for their followers, they were prepared to give up a measure of their own freedom.

We on the other hand make a beeline for events and speeches accompanied by public relations. At the end of the day, we are disappointed and perhaps angry when the media give scant attention to the rallies we sponsor.

Of course, I know that the comparison being offered is inapt because we have no reason to engage in acts of civil disobedience. There are no laws or government to target for protest. Yet, we can demonstrate that Israel’s crisis is not business as usual for American Jews. The boycott against the Times and several other newspapers is a good starting point because it required that attention be paid. I don’t expect that this will result in a turn-around in Middle East reporting, although the early indications are that the boycott has had at least a modest impact.

The messages about European anti-Semitism published by the AJCommittee, AJCongress and ADL are another good start. They are hard-hitting, certainly not the standard fare that we have come to expect from our defense organizations.

More is needed, more meaning greater militancy against those who exhibit constant hostility toward Israel and even cross over into the once forbidden zone of challenging Israel’s right to exist. This hostility is, I believe, more pronounced in the broadcast media, although our sharpest words have been directed against the Times and other newspapers, rather than the likes of BBC and CNN. There is a cultural bias within Jewish life that gives prominence to the printed word. Whether or not we still are the people of the book, for sure we are the people of the newspaper.

Newspapers have been losing ground for what seems forever. In any case, their capacity to influence readers has always been limited. Radio, television and cable have become more critical in conveying news and shaping opinion. As one example, Israel has benefited enormously from the support provided by talk radio, as well as religious broadcasting, and this has counteracted hostility conveyed by cable news.

During two recent trips abroad I got the impression that CNN has surpassed BBC in its anti-Israel tone. This is apart from the latest outburst by Ted Turner who once more apparently forgot to take his medication before he spoke. Turner is as good an example that we can find of the great aphorism: If we want to know what G-D thinks about money, look who He gives it to. CNN reporters in the field have been atrocious. They wear their bias as badges of honor. They and their network ought to be confronted.

Are we ready yet to sit in at CNN?

Monday, June 10, 2002

The Limits of Education

For nearly two centuries, western society has placed many of its bets on educational opportunity – and for good reason. Where there is educational opportunity, people succeed and society benefits as a consequence. The absence of education enlarges the prospect for human failure, the likelihood of human waste. Since education is – or can be – transforming, bringing light where there is darkness and hope where there is despair, how better to confront the failure and darkness resulting from social collapse than by empowering educators and schools to transform society by giving them the Herculean responsibility to confront the destructive forces which permeate the lives of too many children?

Because we place our bets and hopes on educators and schools, when they fail we demand change and it scarcely matters whether the failure arises from their innate limitations as teachers and institutions or from powerful forces outside of the school doors that severely limit what schools are able to accomplish. Because a significant measure of failure now comes with the territory called elementary and high school education, calls for reform are a permanent aspect of the educational landscape. There apparently is no better way to demonstrate concern about children than to insist on the changing of the bureaucratic guard.

Mayor Bloomberg now has his turn at bat. He has achieved a goal that eluded his predecessors and gained limited control over New York’s massive public school system. His control is limited because he will have to confront powerful inertial and bureaucratic forces and make compromises and because much of what determines the success of the educational enterprise is beyond his reach. I expect that down the road there will be new reports of failure and new demands for change.

Yet, his achievement is impressive, capping an impressive opening period as mayor. There will be improvements. In a year or so, we will be rid of the local school boards, the putrefying relics of a well-intentioned experiment in community control that was from the outset captured and sabotaged by opportunists, hacks and even out and out crooks.

If the Mayor has his way, the symbol of bureaucratic waste known as 110 Livingston Street will be sold and replaced by the once great symbol of political corruption, the renovated Tweed Courthouse in back of City Hall. Hopefully, thousands of functionaries will be retired or given real work to do.

School Chancellor Harold Levy, a good man in a perhaps impossible job, is already a lame duck, the latest sacrificial lamb to occupy the office. He will presumably be succeeded by a newly proclaimed miracle worker who not long after accepting the position will wonder why he or she was so foolish to take the job. Like baseball managers, school superintendents are hired to be fired. Does it occur to those who have their long knives out that if for more than a generation nearly every top educational administrator in New York and other major cities has failed, the fault must be in the system and not in the persons?

Many identify inadequate funding as the reason for educational failure, this despite the enormous funds lavished on public schools. The argument is that fiscal parsimony has resulted in good teachers not coming and necessary educational enhancements not being provided. The money argument is convenient because it provides a simplistic explanation for a complicated story and also because to an extent it is true, the extent being that teachers – by which I mean those who are in classrooms and not the large number who are not – deserve to be better paid. This admitted, salaries will scarcely affect teacher recruitment patterns, a truth that has been evident ever since teachers unionized and faculty pay and benefits were substantially increased.

If it is fair to insist that schools be adequately financed, it is equally fair to insist that the funds that are provided be used properly. This is the backbone of the Mayor’s insistence on City Hall control. The question is whether Mr. Bloomberg will have the leverage and the backbone to undertake the internal reforms that save money, thereby adding to what is available in the classroom.

The bureaucracy is an obvious target, especially the number of functionaries who do not teach or manage. More critically, there is a powerful need to take a hard look at special education, as sacred a cow as there is anywhere in the educational domain. After we acknowledge the moral and social obligation to attempt to educate all children to the best of their ability, there is a corollary obligation to look hard at the equally moral issue of whether it is right to provide so much more per child in special education than what is being allocated for ordinary, often packed, classrooms. For all of the sermonizing about special education, some of it is a scam and too much of it consists of people with a virtually non-existent student load being paid significantly more than what teachers who spend the entire day in classrooms are paid.

For all of the good work accomplished by some in special education, there is a culture of opportunism throughout this sub-world. There are quickie degrees that produce pseudo experts with little skill who are overpaid to do very little and who accomplish even less.

Let’s hope that Mr. Bloomberg will challenge this world. Let’s hope, as well, that expectations will not be too high as to what school reform can accomplish. What most ails our schools and limits their effectiveness are pathologies that overwhelm too many children, either at home or on the street. Classroom educators are doing a reasonably good job, especially in view of the difficulties they face. If we want to improve our schools the place to begin is by combating the drug culture, sexual promiscuity and the ordinary coruscating impact of what is called contemporary culture, in short, by counteracting values and lifestyles that undermine the best that schools offer.