Supporting Choice in Education Is A Jewish Value

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17 Jun 2015

Education has always been a Jewish priority.

The Talmud exhorts us to remember favorably Yehoshua ben Gamla, “for were it not for him, the Torah would have been forgotten by Israel.” Concerned that the children of poor families—particularly orphans—did not have access to a quality Torah education, ben Gamla mandated that every Jewish community hire teachers to educate every child from the age of six or seven on up. For this, the sages credited ben Gamla with saving Judaism itself.

Since then, universal access to education has been a central Jewish value.

Earlier this month, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten invoked Jewish values in calling on the contemporary Jewish community both to support district schooling and to oppose educational choice initiatives, such as Governor Cuomo’s proposed Parental Choice in Education Act. However, she provides no evidence to support her second claim. Indeed, a fair reading of the Jewish tradition reveals strong support for educational choice.

Weingarten is right that Jews should be at the forefront of “fighting for educational opportunity and social justice.” That’s exactly why prominent Jewish organizations like the UJA-Federation, the Orthodox Union, and Agudath Israel support Governor Cuomo’s proposal, which would grant tax credits to donors to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help primarily low- and middle-income families enroll their children in the schools of their choice. Educational opportunity entails empowering parents to select the school that works best for their children—not just the school they’re assigned based on where they can afford to live.

The Jewish tradition aims to provide every child with the best possible education, but—so long as the teachers are knowledgeable and of good character—it is not particular about who does the educating. On the very page following Yehoshua ben Gamla’s vision, the Talmud rules that an established teacher could not prevent a newcomer from teaching in the vicinity, even if all he loses all his students to the new teacher. Rather, the Talmud states: kinat soferim tarbeh chokhmah (“jealousy among the scholars increases wisdom”).

Two aspects of this ruling are worth highlighting. First, the sages’ primary concern was that students receive the best possible education, even at the potential expense of a teacher’s livelihood. In the realm of education, the needs of students came before the needs of adults.

Second, the sages recognized that educational choice is beneficial for students. When parents have options, each teacher is motivated to perform as well as possible. The sages saw choice and competition as stronger guarantors of educational quality than the good will of the teachers alone.

A substantial body of evidence confirms the sages’ insight. In 11 of 12 random- assignment studies—the gold standard of social science research—educational choice programs were found to produce positive outcomes for scholarship recipients, including improved academic performance, higher high school graduation rates, and greater college matriculation. One study found no statistically discernable impact and none found harm.

For low-income students, educational choice can be a pathway out of poverty. For example, a recent study by researchers at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution found that black students participating in a pilot scholarship program in New York City were 24 percent more likely to enroll in four-year college, greatly improving their expected future income.

Crucially, educational choice policies do not merely benefit the few at the expense of the many. In 22 of 23 empirical studies, researchers found that educational choice programs spurred modest but statistically significant gains in the performance of students who remained at their assigned district schools. Once again, only one study found no discernable impact and none found harm.

These findings provide compelling evidence the sages were correct: kinat soferim tarbeh chokhmah. In modern parlance: competition among education providers improves student outcomes.

Weingarten also claimed that district schools are “society’s way to… promote our pluralism” and “the vehicle through which we could help all children achieve their dreams.” However, for families who are systematically excluded from the district school system, these words ring hollow.

The unfortunate reality is that district schools are designed to cater to the majority, not minority groups, like Orthodox Jews, who have a different vision of education. Although these taxpayers contribute to the more than $20,000 spent per pupil at New York’s district schools—and save their districts millions of dollars more—their children do not benefit. Governor Cuomo’s proposal would help to remedy this injustice.

A pluralistic society should have an education system that respects and reflects that pluralism. Educational choice policies do just that by empowering families to choose schools that align with their values.

Weingarten concludes that when “we invest in the right of every child to achieve his or her dreams, every one of us benefits.” That’s absolutely right—no matter what type of school the child attends.

Jason Bedrick is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and a graduate of the Rabbinical College of America.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.