The Jewish community, along with the rest of the citizens of California, have a chance to change the educational destiny of the their children in the upcoming election. Appearing on the ballot is a voucher initiative that will enable parents to choose the school that best fits the needs of their children.
The Jewish defense agencies have cranked up their PR machines, joining with the teachers unions with dire predictions of the future if the initiative passes. They are concerned with the future of the public schools, worried about church-state entanglement, concerned about crazy groups making schools. While that may be the position of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee), the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) and others, there has been a shift in Jewish opinion on vouchers. Vouchers have been earning greater support through the Jewish community.
The critics of vouchers, who have ignored the priorities of Jewish education, have failed to take a look at how similar systems are working in other countries. In Australia, a country that so enthralled us during the Olympics, education choice is alive and well. The government financial support follows the student to the school of choice and the results are very interesting.
Nationwide, 50 percent of Jewish children attend Jewish schools. In the large cities of Melbourne and Sydney the numbers are closer to 70 percent. In remote Perth, 85 percent of the Jewish children attend day schools. The public school system is still strong, with about 70 percent of Australia's children attending. The competition from a wealth of private schools has made the public system more accountable.
Most remarkable is the intermarriage rate, which is around 15 percent, instead of 50 percent in the United States. This validates the results of the National Jewish Population Study, which states the more Jewish education, in particular in day schools, the lower the intermarriage rate.
Australia and Orange County have almost identical Jewish populations of about 80,000. In Orange County there are fewer than 1,000 children in three Jewish schools, while in Australia there are 12,000 in more than 20 schools. Parents there pay for the religious segment of the education, removing government from involvement with religion.
The public school system was the ticket from the tenement to the promise of opportunity in America. This may have been true decades ago, but times are different. Public schools are today's door to assimilation. Jewish parents, as all parents, should be given the choice of what is best for their kids.
The Jewish community should support vouchers, not just out of its own needs but for the benefit of the whole society. Educational choice in American cities has proven that it is a way for inner-city children to increase their opportunities.Educational choice has been in operation for decades in this country. Send your kid to college, and grants and tax credits will benefit you. It makes no difference if the school is UCLA or Yeshiva University. We all know that competition on the college level has only increased the choices for students.
Even students who study at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College and the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary use these government benefits. These movements that oppose support for educational choice for children in elementary and high school use government funds for their institutions on a college level. The ADL, AJCommittee and AJCongress should protest government financial support of religious higher education based on their strict interpretation of church-state separation. Funny thing is, we have never heard a word from them on this issue.
The United States is the only Western democracy that does not allow parents to direct their tax dollars to the school that they think is best for their kids. In Australia, as well as other countries such as Canada, England, France and even the former Soviet Union, tax dollars follow the child. Competition is the central principle of a free society. It's time that we bring competition to the educational system; the only ones that will benefit are our children.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County and Long Beach. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org