Recently, billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos was narrowly confirmed by the Senate as Secretary of Education. DeVos is known as a staunch advocate of school choice and has elicited both support and opposition from the Jewish community.
In an exclusive interview, Jason Bedrick, policy director of school choice advocacy group EdChoice, said that school choice is an issue DeVos must leave to the states, and that will benefit Jewish day schools.
“School choice programs can do a lot to make tuition more affordable,” said Bedrick. Formerly an education policy expert at the CATO Institute, a Libertarian think tank. “Not only will choice scholarships directly relieve the burden of tuition, they’ll bring in more money to cover students whose parents are currently paying very little and who are therefore subsidized by other tuition-paying families.”
“That means schools could further reduce the burden on middle-income families,” he said.
Jewish schools in states that implement school choice will reap its benefits, Bedrick continued. “Several states with large Jewish populations already have school choice programs, though value of the scholarships varies by state. In Florida, the tax-credit scholarships are worth about $5,500. Arizona’s [Education Savings Account], which is on the cusp of being expanded to universal eligibility, offers most students about $4,600 for elementary school and $4,900 for high school,” he said.
“However, I don’t expect that California, New York, or New Jersey will be getting a new choice program this year,” he added. California, New York, and New Jersey all have Democratic legislatures, which oppose school choice.
Jewish supporters of DeVos are mostly from Orthodox circles, such as Agudath Israel. In Ohio, which has almost 150,000 Jews, the Cleveland Jewish News reported that Orthodox Jewish day school educators are elated with the new education secretary’s school choice policies, such as vouchers for parents.
“I believe that, first and foremost, it helps the parents, because coming in with multiple children, this is a tremendous help for the families,” Rabbi Eli Dessler, financial director of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, told the Cleveland Jewish News.
Opponents, on the other hand, cry foul at DeVos possibly damaging Jewish day school education. For example, Forward’s editor in chief, Jane Eisner, wrote an article accusing the Trump administration of appointing someone who can continue a “sustained assault on the separation of religion and state [that] is likely only to exacerbate the already wide gap between Orthodox Jews and the more progressive majority that has, until now, dominated the conversation over the role of religion in the American public square.”
“The split over DeVos is but one example,” she added.
“I think most people choose Jewish high schools because they are Jewish (particularly among the Orthodox), not because of their secular academic program,” Bedrick said. “In other words, Jewish schools are primarily competing with each other, not non-Jewish schools. That said, parents I’ve spoken with — especially, but not exclusively, among the Modern Orthodox — do consider the strength of a school’s secular academics when deciding among Jewish schools.”
With the average price tag of Jewish day school tuition at $15,000 per year, DeVos’ advocacy for school choice may enable competition among both public and private schools; and that would impact Jewish primary and secondary education, for better or for worse.
By Jackson Richman
Jackson Richman is a senior at George Washington University majoring in Political Science. His writing has appeared in The Weekly Standard, The Daily Caller, Red Alert Politics, and numerous other outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @jacksonrichman.