Historically, the public schools have been the ladder that American Jews, and so many others, used to climb from poverty to affluence in American life. Today, Jews remain deeply devoted to the public school system; for many North American Jews, public education is the most hallowed of civic virtues. The public schools take the poor and the handicapped, the abused and the foster children, the Christian and the Muslim, the Roman Catholic and the Jew. They do more of God's work in a day than most institutions do in a lifetime.
One of the most serious threats to our system of public education comes from those who support vouchers for use in private and parochial schools. Supporters claim that their goal is to help the poor and improve public education by creating competition. But this is disingenuous. It does not help public schools to take their funding and put it elsewhere. It does not help the inner cities to create a program that will mostly benefit the middle class and the wealthy. The people who engineer voucher proposals-including some within the Jewish community-are almost always those with no interest in maintaining the public schools and whose real aim is to secure funding for their own schools.
Voucher proponents within the Jewish community argue that Jews have nothing to fear from a more flexible definition of the First Amendment. But what makes America the freest and most stable society in which we Jews have ever lived is a Constitution that is our shelter and sanctuary. It is no accident that the period of dramatic flourishing of North American Jewry was marked by great strides in church-state separation.
Next year the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of school vouchers, and there is an even chance that it will approve them in some form. If that happens, many more voucher proposals will be presented to state legislatures throughout the country.
Our support for public education and our opposition to vouchers should never obscure our enthusiastic support for Jewish days schools. They are vital to Jewish religious life, will produce many of our leaders, and are entitled to a fair share of community resources. But we must not ask the government to do for our community what our community is unwilling to do for itself.
THEREFORE, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations resolves to:
- Assist our congregations in supporting a great bastion of true democracy, our public schools;
- Work on the local, state, and national levels to ensure that public education receives the resources it needs and that all students receive the most comprehensive and effective educational program to which they are entitled;
- Reaffirm and give priority to our opposition to school vouchers and proclaim our intention to fight them in the courts and, if necessary, in the legislatures;
- Recommit ourselves to defending the First Amendment's separation of church and state, a cornerstone of our security and freedom; and
- State that this resolution does not alter our enthusiastic support for privately funded Jewish day schools, commending PARDeS and the eighteen Reform Jewish day schools established by the congregations of our Movement, and working to double that number in the decade ahead.