April 27, 2010
School Choice and the Limits of Liberal Jewish CompassionBy Joel B. Pollak
Last month, the Illinois State Senate passed a bill that would provide vouchers to students at Chicago's worst-performing public schools. The bill has since moved to the state House, where the executive committee approved it last week by a vote of 10 to 1. There is a real chance that the bill will become law and that poor children in African-American and Latino neighborhoods will finally have an opportunity to succeed.
There was an interesting pattern in the state Senate vote. The voucher bill passed because Republicans teamed up with black and Hispanic senators. The opposition came from white liberals. As the Chicago Tribune observed, "Many Democrats from relatively affluent areas opposed the measure. But a majority of the African-American and Latino senators -- those whose constituents' kids would directly benefit -- voted yes."
School vouchers have also become a very important issue for religious communities, including the Orthodox Jewish community, which lobbies heavily for vouchers in several states. I was therefore surprised to see that some prominent Jewish Democrats failed to support the voucher bill. My own state senator, Democrat Jeffrey Schoenberg, voted no. Fellow Democrat Ira Silverstein, an openly Orthodox state senator, voted "present."
Their votes cannot be explained by mere party loyalty. Silverstein showed great courage recently when he openly criticized President Barack Obama's Israel policy. Schoenberg was one of the only Democrats to decline to endorse state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias for Senate -- a choice that now looks quite prescient as federal regulators close down Broadway Bank, where Giannoulias was the chief loan officer for several critical years.
What is missing is the courage to admit that big government is not the answer. It was once possible to believe that our most urgent social problems, such as racial inequality, could be resolved by massive government intervention and that we simply needed the political will to overcome the reluctance of the wealthiest taxpayers. There are still many people on the left, particularly in Congress and the White House, who believe that.
But anyone who is willing to acknowledge the results of big government intervention in education -- from the Great Society to No Child Left Behind -- will conclude that the policy has largely failed. And the evidence also tells us that giving children and their parents greater choice in schools produces better results -- higher achievement for the students who leave failing schools, and higher achievement in the schools they leave behind.
That is the conclusion that more and more leaders within Chicago's poorest areas have reached -- and they are willing to pay the political price. For example, though Democrats rely heavily on teachers' unions to turn out the vote, state legislators have shown greater willingness to oppose the unions on vouchers. The bill's sponsor, Sen. James Meeks, famously returned donations from teachers' unions who criticized his reforms.
So why are white liberals, Jewish liberals among them, so indifferent? Part of the reason is that they have become wedded to federal spending. A great portion of the stimulus funding spent in Illinois last year, for example, was allocated to government departments and universities -- places that employ educated, idealistic professionals who may sometimes view private enterprise as a necessary evil rather than a noble calling.
We Jews are overrepresented in that professional class and are raised within a culture that prizes charity and philanthropy. So we care for the less fortunate -- but we often fail to see that good intentions sometimes lead to bad results. And though our success in America is built on economic freedom and our many non-profit organizations depend on private generosity to survive, we fail to preach what we ourselves practice.
We have also become increasingly distant from the people we profess to care about. As Jews have become more established, we have clung more tightly to our political views while caring less about their consequences. The calls for education reform come from the very communities that Jews want to be seen helping -- and yet we fail to hear them. We even doubt their authenticity. We have reached the limits of left-wing compassion.
The essence of what it means to be Jewish and left-wing was defined last week by Michael Lerner and Tikkun magazine, who bestowed an award on Richard Goldstone for "upholding the best ethical values of the Jewish community." Goldstone's report on the Gaza War was a gross defamation, a show trial in which the prosecutors were also the judges and in which the truth about Palestinian terror was deliberately denied.
In reality, the Goldstone Report is a mockery of Torah principles of truth and justice. But the key for Lerner is that Goldstone showed the courage -- as if it takes any nowadays -- to criticize Israel and stand apart from the fate he inevitably shares with his people. Goldstone is not an exemplar of Jewish ethics, but he is a fair specimen of Jewish medieval political behavior dressed in contemporary left-wing moral self-congratulation.
The real goal of figures like Goldstone is not to effect positive change in the world -- for doing so would require confronting the true enemies of peace and human rights -- but to play a gate-keeping role. They see themselves as uniquely able to interpret Jewish tradition in keeping with values of social justice, and at the same time as the only Jewish representatives visionary enough to lead the community in the brave new world.
It is a posture that both takes advantage of and worsens the new perception of Jewish political weakness that is the result of both the Obama administration's open disdain for Israeli leaders and the persistent left-wing demonization of Israel itself. Political maturity requires assuming the burdens and risks of defending principles that are shared beyond the Jewish community itself, like school choice. Yet we are reluctant to step forward.
As a Republican and an observant Jew, I am sometimes asked by left-wing Jews: "You seem nice, but why did you become a Republican?" My answer: I became a Republican precisely because I believe that politics can radically improve the lives of the poorest and most disadvantaged members of our society. I have simply learned that freedom is the best way, and that big government is often the worst way, to achieve that goal.
I learned that through experience -- volunteering in poor neighborhoods, from the west side of Chicago to the townships of Cape Town. I met countless people who wanted to achieve their potential but who were thwarted by the obstacles, delays, and temptations imposed by government intervention, well-meaning and otherwise. Conversely, I have seen how poor families flourish when they are able to make their own life choices.
Today, political debate in the Jewish community is obsessively focused on whether we should support or abandon Obama. We have lost sight of our real interests and values. Instead, we have reverted to a craven political posture that was perhaps appropriate in the Pale of Settlement, but which has no place in a democracy. It is as if we are looking for a king in whom to seek protection -- and if we can't find one, we'll try to create one.
Instead, we should be forthright about our goals and build alliances with those who will help us achieve them. Our place is alongside African-American and Latino communities struggling for school choice -- not with the bureaucrats who want to deny it to us. We also should welcome the sincere support of Christians who love Israel, not reject them. And above all, we ought to remember that big government has almost never been our friend.