No legal reason for Jews not to embrace private school vouchers

Peter Beinart, a professor at the City University of New York and a former editor of The New Republic, has a provocative opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal arguing that non-Orthodox Jews should reverse their opposition to private school vouchers in order to make Jewish education better and more affordable.  Beinart writes that the U.S. “has one of the weakest Jewish school systems in the world. Less than 20% of American Jewish children attend full-time Jewish schools. That’s half the rate in France, one-third the rate in Canada and Australia, and one-fourth the rate in Mexico.”

Beinart worries that allowing Jewish students to use public funds to pay for religious schooling might be challenged constitutionally, but I don’t think that’s an issue.

In its 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled parents may use public funds to pay tuition and fees at faith-based schools provided the money goes first to the parents and their choice is “genuine and independent.”  That is, parents can’t be directly and indirectly coerced into attending a religious school.

Beinart concludes by writing, “The organized American Jewish community’s excessive concern about the separation of church and state perpetuates Jewish ignorance and thus threatens the Jewish future. Let’s hope they reconsider while there is still time.” 

Given that the Zelman decision clearly delineates the conditions under which public funds may be legally used to pay for religious schooling, there is no legal rationale for non-Orthodox Jews not using public funds to pay for religious schooling.  But non-Orthodox Jews tend to be progressive Democrats, and as I wrote yesterday that political tribe is generally opposed – at the moment – to publicly-funded private school choice.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.