Along with choosing the next leader of the free world, come Nov. 7, when Californians enter the polling booth, they will be asked to decide what many believe will be the fate of public education in this state.
If passed, Proposition 38, the school voucher initiative, will give parents $4,000 a year per child to be spent on the schools of their choice.
Within the Jewish community, Proposition 38 has brought to the fore an issue that has been debated within our community.
"I am 100 percent opposed," says Los Angeles parent Robyn Ritter-Simon. "I do not believe in the voucher system at all. I think it will lead to the demise of public education."
Nationwide, American Jews are discussing whether they should support the public education system or approve a voucher system. While, on the institutional level, most Jewish organizations are against vouchers, a recent independent poll conducted by Zogby International has found that 52 percent of American Jews support voucher programs.
"Every child should have the opportunity to an excellent education, not just a select few," says Ritter-Simon, whose three children attend public school. She argues that vouchers will leave children who cannot get into private schools in public schools that have had their funding drained. Education "is not about grabbing what is mine and running with it," says Ritter-Simon.
When her 9-year-old was entering school, Ritter-Simon says, her local public school was not up to par. Rather than abandoning the school, the Beverlywood resident spent four years working to improve the school.
"Parents are frustrated with their local schools," admits Ritter-Simon, 39, who is a candidate for the Los Angeles City Council. "[But] if they are interested in vouchers, then they are interested in education. I want these parents to stay" to improve local schools," she says.
Many proponents of vouchers argue that the program would allow parents, especially those within urban areas, to remove their children from failing and unsafe schools and provide them with better educations in private schools.
"The old system is a failed one," argues Alan Stern. "It has been a proven failure for the poor and minorities."According to Stern, who sends his children to Jewish day schools, 30 percent of public school teachers send their children to private schools.
"We have reached a crisis in public schools in urban areas," says Stern, a food importer. "We are condemning these kids to a life of hopelessness and poverty."
Stern points to Milwaukee and Cleveland, two cities with voucher programs, and says, "where vouchers have been tried, they have been a resounding success."
In Milwaukee, where some 8,000 poor students use vouchers to attend private or parochial school, some 62 percent of city residents support vouchers, according to a poll commissioned by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Among local Black residents, the level of support is 74 percent; among Hispanics, 77 percent. Some 81 percent of Milwaukee low-income residents support vouchers.
According to The New York Times, the first independent evaluation of Cleveland's voucher program, conducted by Harvard University, "found that the program was very popular with parents and raised the scores of those students tested at the end of the first year."
Stern also says that in places where vouchers have been introduced, public schools have been forced to improve in order not to lose additional students.
Unlike Proposition 38, which gives vouchers to every parent, Stern says, "I believe in a need-based vouchers system to benefit the poor and minorities." Stern also believes that schools should be approved, monitored and accredited in order to receive vouchers. "There needs to be guidelines," he says.
Debbie Seidoff, who sent her children to private schools, is against school vouchers. "It bankrupts the public school system," says Seidoff, a nonpracticing psychologist.
"My children need to live in a world where everyone is educated," says the 47-year-old mother of two. "I don't believe that the way to fix something is to give up on it."
Though an advocate of public education, Seidoff did not send her children to public school. "For my children, what I was looking for was best met by a private school," she explained.
Seidoff, who lives in Beverly Hills, adds that the private school she sent her children to resembled "a good public school."
"Look I don't disagree that we need to revamp the public school system," says Seidoff, "but I don't think the solution is to further deplete the system."
Seidoff also says that voucher schools "do tend to ghettoize, and I don't think that is good," adding that her sons' private school had students "of different color, of different ethnicity."
Seidoff also argues that a voucher system that would allow a student to attend a parochial school would breach of the separation of church and state.
"As a taxpayer, it offends me to pay for another child's parochial school," says Seidoff. "A parochial education is a privilege and not a right."
Voucher programs in both Milwaukee and Cleveland that were challenged on the basis of the Constitution's "establishment clause" have been upheld by the United States Supreme Court, which refused to listen to arguments and let stand lower courts' decisions on the programs' constitutionality.
Proponents of vouchers also argue that students can receive federal financial aid to attend divinity schools at Notre Dame, Yale University or Hebrew Union College to study for the clergy or rabbinate.
In New York City, where there are numerous non-Orthodox Jewish schools, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, and John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation in New York, support vouchers. Both argue that vouchers would help parents afford the high cost of Jewish education.
Yet not all parents of local children enrolled in Jewish schools support vouchers.Deborah Kattler Kupetz admits that the cost of sending her daughters to Jewish day schools is a hardship on her and her husband.
"We live across the street from a fantastic public school," she says. "[My husband and I] both went to public school. Yet we wanted to pursue a deeper Jewish education for our daughters."
Still, Kattler Kupetz is staunchly against vouchers. "At this point, I am not ready to change my opposition," says the 39-year-old mother of two. "I don't think that it is a solution for the problems in public education."
Kattler Kupetz volunteers at her local public school and was involved in the building of the school's library."I also don't think the community, the country overall, benefits by not demanding and expecting excellent public school education," says Kattler Kupetz. Accordingly, she is for higher wages for educators and incentives for good teachers, and against unions that protect incompetent teachers and principals from being fired or disciplined. "I am against anything," she says, "that dilutes the expectation of an excellent public education."