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.