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The Rabbi Writes: Michigan Public Schools

The Jewish Humanist, February 1994, Vol. XXX, Number 7

The public school system in Michigan is in a crisis condition. The property tax for education has been dismissed. Public confidence is declining. The morale of teachers and students is at an all time low. Religious groups are clamoring for the replacement of state education with the voucher system. And a controversial referendum to provide alternative funding through a higher sales tax is imminent. 

The crisis stands in sharp contrast to the public schools of my childhood. In the first sixty years of this century the American state educational system was hailed as one of the finest examples of American democracy. Even free enterprise enthusiasts liked the public schools, even though it meant government control of education. While some proponents were fanatic Protestants who hated Catholics and the Catholic parochial school system most proponents were happy parents who believed that the state school system was delivering exactly what they wanted. 

The old public school system was very good at turning farmer children into urban labor and European immigrants into American citizens. It was also very good at producing a literate work force that could undertake unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. It was blessed with low paid spinster teachers, a young population eager for child education, a reverent relationship between parents and administrators, and low expectations. The social setting was one where two parent families and non-working mothers were the norm. Television was either non-existent or new and children read newspapers or wrote letters. 

The crisis in the public schools exists because the old social setting no longer exists. There are virtually no farmer children to turn into an urban work force. European children have been replaced by African, Asian and Hispanic children. Jobs for unskilled labor have vanished together with the easy affluence that little education at one time could bring you. Low-paid spinster teachers have yielded to self-esteeming professionals who want decent compensation and tenure at the same time. The population is aging, filled with old people who have no personal vested interest in funding child education. The relationship between administrators, teachers and parents is adversarial, aggravated by the emergence of aggressive teacher unions and indifferent politicians. Stable two parent families are shrinking into a minority-all of this change adding new burdens and responsibilities to an overburdened and non (sic) traumatized school system. The analytic skills that come from reading and writing have found a substitute in screen watching. And a more affluent bourgeois America has much higher expectations of its schools and its teachers. 

The consequence is a declining faith in the value of the public school system and an increasing unwillingness to find it. 

Something dramatic needs to be done. Either the public school system will be reformed and funded. Or it will yield to a chaotic system of private schools paid for by state vouchers. 

I am no friend of Governor Engler. But I applaud his willingness to confront the issue. The public school system will not be improved by defending the status quo and identifying all the enemies of public education who are members of his entourage. The complaints are legitimate. The crisis is real. 

I believe that right now, there is no alternative to public schools having the major responsibility for youth education. If we were starting from scratch, I might choose another alternative. But you do not tear down a system that basically works and replace it with an untested private system that will still rely on state money. 

So what do we need to do to reform the system effectively? We need to take bold action. Timid reforms will not work. 

We need to reform the school curriculum so that it trains students for the jobs of the future. Self-esteem does not flow from talking about it or praising one’s ethnic background. It comes from competence and employment. There is no substitute in today’s world for a basic knowledge of the language of science and technology. 

We need to find the teachers who can do this job, pay them adequately and rescue them from overcentralized (sic) and intrusive bureaucracies. Teachers should be rewarded for merit. The tenure system, which exists mainly in the public sector, ought to be discarded. 

We need to charter experimental schools, which are responsible to public authority-but which allow creative educators to test new procedures of education without having to conform to standard policies. 

We need to allow parental choice within a school district-and within the ability of a local school to accommodate demand. Schools that parents do not want should be closed or changed. 

We need to allow public schools the options of turning their operation over to private educational corporations. This experiment in Minnesota has proved quite successful. This transfer must only be made to entrepreneurs with a clear secular agenda. 

We need to establish performance standards for children in each area of learning. There is no substitute for testing. The fear that testing will produce uniformity and rote learning is out weighed (sic) by the disadvantage of chaotic expectations and school certificates that are a sham. 

We need to find funding for the system that provides equal support for the rich and the poor. The local property tax is no longer a feasible funding route. The income tax is a better route but will not be accepted by the general public. The sales tax is regressive-but there is a chance that it will be approved. Therefore, I support the referendum initiative. Hating Engler is not a sufficient reason to oppose. Helping children is more important. 

In some ironic way, Michigan has become a ‘pioneer’ for educational reform. We have to do something dramatic right away. 

The Rabbi Writes – Prayer in Public Schools

Volume 31, No. 6, January 1995

Newt Gingrich has spoken. He wants prayer in the public schools. And so do millions of other American. Most of them are not members of the Religious Right. They just want to improve the personal and social values of their children.

The separation of religion and government is a traditional political principle in our nation. It is embodied in the Bill of Rights of our Constitution. It has been made sacred by the endorsement of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It has been confirmed by the decisions of the Federal Supreme Court.

Separation in America had three roots. One was pragmatic. America was Protestant. There were many Protestant denominations, none of them holding the allegiance of a majority of the American people. They were often at war with each other, competing for members and state support. It was not feasible to establish any one of them as the state religion. The most practical solution was to establish none of them.

The second root was a minority new among Protestant dissenters, many of whom had come to America. Both the Quakers and the Baptists subscribed to the supreme importance of individual conscience. Religion only had value when it was free and uncoerced. State religion was coercing religion. It had the power to violate individual conscience. It was unacceptable, even though religion and God were indispensable to salvation. Every individual had to work out his own personal connection to God.

The third root was the Enlightenment. The spokesmen of the Enlightenment exalted reason over faith. There were contemptuous of religious superstition. They were hostile to intrusive clergy and established churches. They wanted to mold a new kind of citizen who would assume responsibility for his own life and who would use science as the path to knowledge. They saw no benefit to the state from religion. If individual citizens wanted to be religious, they should pursue it privately in private institutions and at private expense.

The anti-establishment clause of the Constitution arose from these three diverse roots. All three groups were in favor of it, but for different reasons. Ultimately, they would disagree about what “no establishment” meant.

For conservatives, state schools were Protestant schools. They could authorize Protestant prayers and Protestant Bible readings and Protestant holiday celebrations so long as they did not favor any particular Protestant denomination. For moderates, state schools were agencies of an American civil religion, which was neither Protestant nor Catholic, nor Jewish.

They acknowledged the importance of God and prayer and believed that public ceremonies where God was included were perfectly appropriate.

For Catholics separation meant that their children did not have to go to state schools. But it was only fair that the neutral government would support their own parochial schools, as other governments did in many of the countries of Europe.

For liberals, separation meant the total absence of religious vocabulary, religious literature and religious celebration in the public schools and in the public life of the nation. It also meant no state money for religion sponsored schools. Up until the 1960’s the courts did not completely support this position. But in the early 1960’s the Supreme Court explicitly forbade prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. Over the years, with religious diversity the state schools had become increasingly more secular. The Supreme Court confirmed this trend and gave a victory to the liberals.

 Through the years the liberal agenda had been ironically reinforced by the hostility between fundamentalist Protestants and the Catholic Church. Many Protestants who were in favor of prayer in the public schools supported a strict separation because they did not want any state money going to Catholic parochial schools. In the past three decades, however, anti-Communism, anti-secularism and anti-feminism have broken down the old hostility and united the Protestant Right with the Catholic Right. It is very important for all of us who embrace the political position of “strict separation” to understand that we can no longer rely on the old religious hatreds to serve our purpose. Anxiety over moral change has broken down the barriers to cooperation.

Some liberals, like Bill Clinton, are running scared. They see compromise as the best strategy. They are willing to settle for a “moment of silence”, but they fail to understand the real nature of the opposition. The opposition feeds on the ever-present anxiety that our children are not receiving the moral training they need to be good citizens. And for most people, moral training is tied up with religion. Prayer and morality go together in their minds.

Most Americans want the public schools to teach values as well as information. They want the schools to be a bulwark against drugs, crime and self-destruction. In the past, public schools did teach the values of good citizenship. And they taught them in a secular way.

Somewhere, along the way, many separationists gave up on the importance of teaching values in the public schools. They replaced values indoctrination with values clarification. They abdicated the responsibility of the schools to provide for direct moral education. Disagreeing on abortion, pre-marital sex and homosexuality does not mean that you cannot agree on self-discipline, responsibility and abstinence from drugs. Relying on the Constitution and the Supreme Court as the chief strategy of survival is a weak program for separationists. Both the Constitution and the Supreme Court can be changed. Strict separationists are a distinct minority in this country.

The most effective counter to prayer in the public schools is to demonstrate that good values can be taught without prayer. The focus of our message must not be only personal freedom and individual conscience. Those issues are not at the heart of the Gingrich initiative. The focus of our message has to be what secular schools can do to enhance the moral behavior of our children. It needs to concentrate less on liberty and more on discipline.