Jews in the Public Schools

Allen: The de facto segregation of the New York City public schools is a moral embarrassment. Consider some statistics. White children are underrepresented by 200% in city schools. Of those whites who do attend public school, more than half are concentrated within 7% of classrooms. Two-thirds of black students attend schools that with less than ten percent white enrollment. Three-quarters of city charters are less than 1 percent white. We’re talking Plessy v. Ferguson levels.

Nor is this problem limited to “inner-city” areas like the South Bronx. The High School of Arts and Sciences (formerly and ironically the “Martin Luther King Jr. School”), located a brief stroll from the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, enrolls a total of 14 white students in a student body of 580, 90 percent of which qualify as “economically disadvantaged.” (Check out Gary Orfield’s harrowing UCLA study, Jonathan Kozol’s Shame of a Nation, and publicly available DOE data for the above evidence and much more.)

Middle-class whites could put a real dent in social segregation by sending our kids to the official schools of our community. With our own families’ education at stake, we’d pull every lever of political and economic power at our disposal until all kids received the basic education they deserved. By opting out of the public school system, and by extension, the larger democratic community, private school parents withhold their influence from the students who could benefit from it.

So runs the case against private schooling for wealthy and upper-middle-class children. My question for this post is: where does that leave Jews? For compelling reasons, many families with whom we’re close have chosen to send their kids to Jewish schools such as Schechter, Heschel and Ramaz. I’m sympathetic to those families; they want to promote the Jewish literacy you and I have spoken so much of. At times, I wish I’d had the benefit of that kind of education. But can we really in good conscience fork over thousands a year in private school tuition while leaving the rest of the city to its own fate? Or is the problem not so simple?

Aron: I think we need to start from a basic premise: we cannot have a vibrant, sustainable, knowledgeable, and engaged Jewish community without Jewish schools. If we want kids to grow up knowing the joys and moral obligations of religious life, we need to have schools teaching and modeling Judaism. Sunday school won’t cut it.

That said, our decision to maintain Jewish day schools shouldn’t come at the cost of anyone’s education. This means that we should absolutely not (as some small factions of our community unfortunately do) advocate for a transfer of more funding from public education to private education. Because of a range of economic factors — the higher cost of private education, economies of scale, supply and demand — it’s almost inevitable that increasing the number of private school students decreases the number of students receiving a quality education overall.

It’s not enough, though, just to refrain from interfering with public education; we should take an active part in advocacy for the public school system. We owe it to the millions of Americans (including the vast majority of our community) who rely on public schools.

On top of that, we don’t need state money to fund Jewish schools; we just need to stop spending idiotic amounts of money on other causes. Birthright’s 2011 operating budget was $87 million. AIPAC has an operating budget of about $60 million. Standwithus’ operating budget in 2016 was $10 million. Liel Leibovitz, who’s certainly no dove, wrote a whole article in Tablet trying to understand donors’ obsession with giving money to anti-BDS organizations. On top of all that, we spend HaShem-knows-how-much on Jewish singles events, Purim bar nights, and synagogue renovations.

Allen: Let’s be straightforward about what’s at stake here. By your view, the benefit gained from sending kids to day school outweigh the benefit of sending them to a publicly funded, democratic institution in need of our support. I can’t abide by that. We ought to do our part to help finish the work that Brown v. Board of Ed. started– making sure all kids get a fair shot to learn and grow together. Without a doubt, this seriously complicates the task of Jewish continuity. And yet it feels like the right thing to do. You write that “we should take an active part in advocacy for the public school system.” But why should any school board take us seriously if it doesn’t represent our children? The people who change a system are the ones affected by it.

For now, I’ll settle for the admittedly second-best alternatives: modeling a Jewish home and Jewish community, imparting a semi-formal Jewish education (whether through programs like Prozdor or private instruction), and sending kids to Jewish camp. As sociologist Steven M. Cohen points out, the single most important predictor of children’s Jewish involvement is parents’ Jewish involvement, not schooling. And the non-Orthodox day school system as it stands has hardly proven a surefire defense against Jewish apathy. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, those who would give up our voice in the public schools to guarantee their kids’ future Jewish identity may well wind up with neither.

I take this stance reluctantly, and not without some major caveats. Firstly, public schools vary across regions. Sending a child to public school in Manhattan is one thing; public school in Nassau, Westchester, or Silver Spring quite another. In areas where the segregation issue isn’t a factor, day school becomes a much more defensible option.

Secondly, I might be willing to send my future child to a school that takes Jewish literacy and hands-on civic engagement equally seriously. I’m just not sure that such a place currently exists. (And you’re right — the obscene sums spent on Birthright and the rest of the hasbarah mill should go toward making one.) Show me that school, and I’m all ears.

Aron: Unfortunately, I think you’re drastically underestimating how eliminating Jewish schools would cripple Judaism. It seems like our debate isn’t really over the value of the public school system — we agree that it’s crucial. We’re also not arguing over the value of Jewish literacy — we agree that it would be bad if Jewish literacy were decimated. What we’re really arguing about is whether Jewish literacy would be decimated by abandoning Jewish schools. If I believed that Jewish literacy could survive without them, I’d be all for your proposals.

You suggest that Hebrew schools, camps, and family experiences can be “second-best alternatives.” Where do you think Jewishly literate Hebrew school teachers, camp counselors, and parents come from?

A significant (if not overwhelming) majority of those who are best-equipped to provide meaningful non-day school experiences are themselves the products of day schools. The few Hebrew school teachers, camp counselors, and parents who became Jewishly literate without day schools relied on a previous generation of teachers, counselors, and parents who did go to day school. As the saying goes, it’s turtles all the way down. Jewish day schools have an enormous trickle down effect, and if you get rid of them, you cripple all the other educational institutions that rely on their graduates.

On top of that, the study you cite doesn’t back up your conclusions. In fact, it states that one of the main ways that Jewishly involved parents impart Judaism to their children is by sending them to Jewish schools: “[A] major portion of the association between childhood Jewish education and current involvement must be attributed to the link between parental involvement and intensivity [sic] of Jewish education.”

All of that said, no one (at least, no one on this blog) is advocating for a wholesale abandonment of the public school system. At the end of the day, only a fraction of our community will ever be enrolled in day schools. I think it’s critical, though, to make sure those schools exist, that they provide meaningful educational, religious, and civic experiences, and that (most importantly) they are need-blind. We should reallocate our communal resources to ensure that any child who wants to receive a substantive, full-time Jewish education can get one. Judaism should not be the privilege of the wealthy. That, at least, I’m sure we agree on.


One thought on “Jews in the Public Schools

  1. Parents are wont to do what they feel is best for their children, even at the expense of what they think might be for the greater good of society. That is to say, they will prioritize their children over the larger community.


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