American Jews may not yet know where U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's policy on Israel is heading, but his direction is clear on a domestic issue of deep concern to their community – education.
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Donald Trump’s choice of Michigan billionaire and education activist Betsy DeVos as his nominee for secretary of education reflects a consistent theme throughout his campaign – school choice. In real terms, that means encouraging competition by promoting charter schools within the public system and, especially, the use of tax credits and vouchers, which in effect provide government subsidies for private education – even when that education is religious.
DeVos, an active member of the Christian Reformed Church, which has its roots in the teachings of John Calvin, has spent 30 years – and hundreds of millions of dollars – promoting this agenda hard through her primary non-profit organization, the American Federation for Children, and associated political action committees that fund charter school and pro-voucher politicians.
The Reformed Church says on its website that "because of our concern for family and our belief that our faith is important in all areas of our lives, we support Christian schools." Growing up, DeVos attended religious schools and her religious movement's Calvin College.
The Trump-DeVos education agenda, presuming her nomination is confirmed, will almost certainly expose a major rift in the American Jewish community, a wound that is regularly opened when the voucher issue is played out in the courts or on state ballots.
The issue pits one set of deeply held Jewish values against another, placing American Jews and their organizations on opposing sides of the political fence. The debate boils down to whether American Jews are more committed to protecting their country’s public education system – an institution that is arguably responsible for much of their success and integration – or to making full-time Jewish education affordable for their children.
Tax credits and vouchers that would offset the cost of private education are a highly attractive proposition to Jewish families struggling to afford yeshivas and day schools. One sector of the community, the Orthodox, clearly believes that Jews should welcome and support government programs to make the school burden more bearable.
The Orthodox Jewish press embraced DeVos' nomination with enthusiasm. Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, told the Algemeiner that affordable Jewish education was the “number one kitchen-table domestic policy issue for the Orthodox community,” and that Trump’s campaign promise to “allocate $20 billion to federal-education spending for school-choice programs” was a plan “that has the potential to greatly assist the Jewish community with its affordability challenge.”
Agudath Israel, another Orthodox American Jewish group, “warmly welcomed” the DeVos announcement, with its officials hailing DeVos as “intelligent, compassionate and effective” with “passionate support for school choice.”
On the other side of the fence is the non-Orthodox majority of Jewish Americans, predominantly organizations and individuals who oppose vouchers, which reflects the views of the 75 percent of American Jews who voted against Donald Trump.
There are multiple reasons for the Jewish establishment’s opposition to vouchers.
One is the fear that the initiative will decimate American public education, to which most Jewish Americans send their children, often in suburbs chosen specifically for their strong public schools. Associated with that is the belief that the introduction of charters and voucher subsidies in some states has harmed, not helped, the less fortunate. (Though some have harnessed the charter movement to create "Hebrew Language and Identity" public schools, in which Jewish and non-Jewish children study Hebrew and Israeli culture.)
Historically, public schools in the U.S. have not only been the pathway to success for many American Jews, but generations of Jewish Americans have taught and helped build and lead the teachers' unions that Trump and DeVos regularly attack. Randi Weingarten, the current president of the American Federation of Teachers and a high-profile Jewish community activist, has denounced the DeVos nomination as a sign that Trump's education policy “will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America."
But the deepest American Jewish concern is a belief that the widespread use of vouchers will weaken the walls between church and state, which they regard as vital to preserving the rights of religious minorities. The official position of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which represents the consensus position of Jewish federations and congregations around the country, is that “whether vouchers are paid directly to sectarian schools or are disbursed to parents, the underlying effect is the same: American taxpayers are compelled to financially support, and therefore promote, religious beliefs they may not share, thereby infringing upon their religious freedom.”
The church-state wall is why many Jewish liberals who send their own children to private schools – Jewish or non-sectarian – oppose vouchers, even though it goes against their own financial self-interest.
Not all prominent Jewish Democrats and liberals, however, have lined up in agreement with this view.
Former Senator and Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman not only supports vouchers, but sits on the board of Betsy DeVos’s non-profit organization. Lieberman has been an active supporter of tax credits and voucher programs since the early Nineties, sponsoring, supporting and voting for legislation allowing their use, including for religious institutions – and clashing numerous times with the Democratic Party over the issue. Lieberman’s position on vouchers was a sore point in the 2000 presidential race, when he made it clear that he broke with his presidential running mate Al Gore on the issue, a policy difference the Bush campaign didn’t fail to point out.
An even less likely, high-profile Jewish advocate of vouchers is progressive Haaretz and Atlantic columnist Peter Beinart, who wrote a piece headlined “The Jewish Case for School Vouchers” for the Wall Street Journal in 2012. In it, Beinart argued that the need to educate future generations of American Jews had to be addressed and that the community’s fears of mingling church and state were “overblown.”
“Government aid to Jewish schools in Australia, Britain and Canada doesn't mean that Jews in those countries enjoy less religious liberty than their American counterparts,” he wrote, urging non-Orthodox U.S. Jews to reconsider their opposition to government support for their children’s Jewish education.
“The organized American Jewish community's excessive concern about the separation of church and state perpetuates Jewish ignorance and thus threatens the Jewish future. Let's hope they reconsider while there is still time,” Beinart wrote.
DeVos’s organization took advantage of the multiplicity of views in the Jewish community in a particularly nasty manner during a 2010 Florida political campaign. Dan Gelber, a Jewish candidate for attorney general who sends his children to public schools and opposes vouchers, was facing off against pro-voucher candidate Pam Bondi. (If Bondi’s name sounds familiar, that’s because she was the attorney general who decided against investigating fraud allegation against Trump University shorty after Trump donated $25,000 to her re-election campaign.)
Direct mail charging that Gelber was “on the record against scholarships to help our needy children attend Jewish private schools," was sent to the Jewish community in South Florida, prompting Gelber to dismiss them as “in-the-gutter political hate mail.”
One anti-Gelber ad in a Jewish newspaper featured his face in a “wanted” poster with text accusing him of “crimes against Jewish education.” Another ad called him “toxic to Jewish education” and charging him with “selling out our children’s futures.”
The Florida press determined that the campaign against Gelber was a distortion of the truth, calling it “a crass twist of logic to claim otherwise. Characterizing his long opposition to the voucher program as a direct vote against needy Jewish children is flat-out wrong.”
The ads and mailings were funded by DeVos’s American Federation for Children organization.
Hopefully, the kind of divisive and ugly tone underwritten by the DeVos forces in the 2010 Florida race won’t characterize a future debate on vouchers within the American Jewish community.
But given the current tenor of political debate in the pre-Trump era, that danger clearly exists.