Vouchers - A Pro Position

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

It's 6:00 a.m. Ed slowly gets out of bed and, as he does every morning, quietly slips into his daughter's room. Elizabeth, his little angel, is asleep. He kisses her tenderly and with a sigh leaves her room. "I wish I could do more for her," he says to himself. Unlike her girl friend, Jacki Johnson, Elizabeth attends public school. Mr. Johnson recently received a raise. He used every penny to transfer Jacki to the Catholic school down the street from Elizabeth's school, in educational terms however, located light years away. In just a few months the difference is striking. While Elizabeth, now age twelve, cannot read, Jacki is already reading fluently. "What future lies ahead for someone who cannot read?" Ed asks himself. "Why shouldn't Elizabeth attend a school that will give her the tools she needs for her future?"

Vouchers have a face. It is the face of Elizabeth and thousands of other children in the inner city who are trapped in a substandard school system because their parents cannot afford the tuition for private or parochial education. While taxpayers spend about $6,000.00 ($10,000.00 on the high school level) per year per student to educate children in Chicago public schools, the tuition in Catholic schools is about $2,000.00 ($4,500.00 on the high school level) per year. Vouchers would allow parents to choose their child's education, for example - the Catholic school. This choice would mean a savings of about $4,000.00 for the tax payer and a quality education for the student! Hardly a new idea, vouchers, as described in State House Bill 0642 the "Scholarship School Act," are reminiscent of the "G.I. Bill." Providing money for education to be spent at the individual's discretion, the G.I. Bill is responsible for educating thousands upon thousands of Americans in their chosen fields of endeavor at public, private and religious institutions of learning across the United States. It has allowed, as vouchers will, those lacking the finances, to be able to secure a quality education of their choice and in turn become productive members of society.

Little has changed in the Chicago Public Schools since the statement by Education Secretary William J. Bennett who, in 1987, after reviewing Chicago's ACT scores, declared our public schools the "worst in America." In spite of school reform, Chicago still enjoys the distinction of having one of the worst public school systems in our country. It is not surprising that Chicago has the largest percentage of children private or parochial schools in the nation. With 425 private schools serving 110,000 students, one out of every five K-12 student is educated outside the public school system. Most telling is the fact that 40% of Chicago's public school teachers educate their own children outside the very system in which they teach.

Support for vouchers is significant. In a survey conducted by Targets Research Associates, 60% of Chicagoans now support a voucher system for elementary and high school. (70% of African Americans, 67% of Latinos and 54% of whites, support vouchers.) As Jews, we believe in equal opportunity for all. We know first-hand the singular importance of a good education, the vistas of opportunity a good education can open. We must not be party to imprisoning the minds of children in a world of ignorance and hopelessness.

It is time we are honest with ourselves. Those Jews who, when confronted with vouchers, invoke "separation of church and state," in the main have opted out of the inner city public school. Members of the middle class, one of their primary reasons for moving to suburbia was to enroll their child in a quality school. It is wrong to force those of modest means, who want and deserve the same opportunity of educational choice affluence has brought the Jewish community, to languish in a system for a principle they, as the statistics demonstrate, do not support! Vouchers will contribute in a real way toward the creation of an equal playing field in education.

And what of our own community? Today the Day School is no longer the exclusive domain of the Orthodox. Chicago Jewry boasts Day Schools established by the Conservative, Orthodox and Reform movements. The graduates of these institutions are well educated in both secular and Jewish studies. All quarters of Jewry view them as the core group necessary to build a strong Jewish community for the future. Our Jewish Federation spends millions subsidizing these Day Schools, millions that are increasingly more difficult to allocate given the growing demands upon the Jewish charitable dollar. Increasing tuition, "Give or Get," dinners, ad books and other fund raisers are over-burdening the Day School family. There is no relief in sight. Vouchers would free up some of our education tax dollars to offset the cost of Day School. This is not self-serving for the Day School graduate is a productive citizen of society.

The concept of "separation of church and state," to the degree that it is advocated by some in the United States, is peculiar to our country. I lived in a society where there was no separation of church and state - the United Kingdom - and found it afforded the Jew no less religious freedom than the United States. The U.K. has an official church - The Church of England. As a free society it provides accommodation for all religious practices. Any religious group of fifty or more families has the right to its own school. The local school district provides a building, secular staff and text books. The religious community provides the religious texts and the salaries of the Sacred studies staff. In practical terms the Jewish community of Manchester, some 30,000 individuals, educated about 90% of its children in Jewish elementary schools, with a good percentage of them continuing on to Jewish high schools. The King David High School alone had a student body of more than 1,000 in a facility complete with a gymnasium, swimming pool, laboratories, etc. The tuition at King David was about $250.00 per year. That's right - $250.00 per year! And what of the encroachment of the Church of England upon Jewish education? My experience was that Judaism is shown greater deference in the U.K., with an official church, than it is in the United States.

While supporting separation of church and state, I decry the absolutism of some of its interpretation. Surely when one considers vouchers, the absolutist view of separation of church and state seems obtuse.