As we go to press, the people of California are deciding the fate of their education system. Because California is one of the nation’s trend-setters, the outcome of Proposition 174, the “school choice” initiative, will have implications in every part of the country.
One important element in the California debate was so muted as to be all but inaudible. Since school choice is not an issue that will “go away,” this ingredient ought to be highlighted for the sake of other states during the months ahead.
The war is over something much more fundamental than schools; they just sadly happen to be the battle-ground. The war is about one simple question that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on three times this century: Are children to be under parental authority, or are they to become mere creatures of the state?
This question has already been fought over on different battlegrounds. For instance, the New York Catholic Archdiocese recently played a crucial role in helping New Yorkers make up their minds: Should schools—in flagrant defiance of parents’ objections— force information upon small children about bizarre sexual practices which are not regularly encountered in American homes? Another example is whether minors will be allowed to undergo abortions without parental consent? Or again, should we have government policies that assist teenagers to become financially independent of their parents, but totally and forever de-pendent on the state? These are all related policy questions because their implementation would erode parental authority throughout our society.
The fierce debate over school choice is nothing more than a reflection of the deepest chasm that rips across our cultural landscape: The argument over the role of God in our approach to public life. There are those of us who believe that by our desire to see America once again reflect her Judeo-Christian heritage, we are following in the foot-steps of the Founding Fathers. We are convinced that this not only does not jeopardize structure, it reaffirms it. Then there are those who vehemently reject this vision. The passion and intensity of the two sides are about equal, thus ensuring bitter and enduring conflict.
The Bible, our instruction guide to Judeo-Christian thinking, is unequivocal on who should constitute children’s authority. This is important because all studies repeatedly show that over 80 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the word of God. There are therefore many people who either know or strongly suspect that God never intended government to re parents. After all, the fifth commandment instructs children to honor their fathers and mothers—not their local teachers’ union official.
One would have to misuse the Bible severely to find in it anything except a ringing endorsement of parental authority. There are, however, interesting instances of defying government officials for the sake of parents. For example, in Genesis 44:18 Judah confronts the viceroy of Egypt, who wants to detain Judah’s brother Benjamin. At great personal risk, Judah explains that this would violate his father’s explicit instructions. It clearly does not occur to him to return home and merely explain Benjamin’s absence to his father as an unfortunate but inviolable government decree.
Quoting from the Bible in Deuteronomy 4:9, 6:7, 11:19, as well as in Isaiah 38:19, the Talmud obliges the king or government to provide public education when necessary, but only as a proxy to parents, not as a usurper of them. Government can help parents, but it may not appropriate their primary role. Nobody is in a better position than a father or mother to understand the uniqueness of each child, which is one of the most difficult challenges of parenting. Parents should not only have the right but are under a moral obligation to choose that which is best for their child. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train a child in the way he should go.” Jewish tradition teaches that this injunction refers to the obligation upon a parent to search conscientiously for the proper educational environment for each and every child.
Talmudic sources (Babylonian Tractate Bathra) reveal that as far back as 2,000 years, Jewish communities established schools. These quasi-public sec-tor academies were an accommodation to economic realities such as the need for specialization. They ensured an education even for the children of parents who lacked knowledge or time to do the job themselves. Since Scriptural preference was for parents to assume paramount responsibility for their children’s education, these schools went to great lengths to avoid usurping that role.
The yellowed pages of my Talmud disclose pedagogic treasures that persuade me of how little the most successful classrooms have changed in two millennia. I find pearls such as the ideal age to start school: six or seven years old. Up till then children should be with their parents. The maximum number of students to be in a classroom? Twenty-five is the correct answer according to my ancient mentor. Through all this advice one sees constant reminders that schools and teachers are to act only as the parents’ proxies.
With such a strong Jewish tradition for choice in education, why does California’s Jewish community largely oppose Proposition 174? Many major Jewish organizations and numerous rabbis publicly called for the defeat of the initiative. The question is still more compelling when one takes into account the fact that Jews tend to view themselves as defenders of the poor. Well, in this election, over 70 percent of the poor desperately desire the passage of Proposition 174, yet so many of my people oppose it.
We Jews have a warm place in our hearts for the educational system that made Americans out of our immigrant grandparents. For many of us it was a public school that placed us on the road to a professional career and eventual affluence. This understandable nostalgia, however, obscures a crucial and brutal fact: the public education system we fondly remember is dead. What we have in many of our larger cities today is an impostor, unworthy of our affection. It is difficult for many Jews to come to terms with that fact.
Education could well emerge as the issue of this decade. This is because in-creasing numbers of Americans are coming to understand that illiteracy and mathematical incompetence is only a small part of the threat. The real fear is that our children’s cultural link to the past is being methodically severed. Those promoting a secular agenda are exploiting adolescent sexuality to rewrite the morals of America’s next generation. The only obstacles to these evil designs have been traditional parents. Now they, too, are being made irrelevant by those who seek to exploit the teenage yearning for independence. As the schoolchild turns ever more confidently to State institutions rather than to his parents for his principles, the American family becomes weaker and weaker. School choice is only a tiny hand grenade to lob at the advancing bureaucratic battalions—but it’s all there is.