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Rethinking Our Ideas on Education

February 3, 2011 By:
David Glanzberg-Krainin and David Ackerman
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David Glanzberg-Krainin

We both graduated from excellent public schools and today live in suburban communities with outstanding public school systems. Our children -- six between us -- all attend private Jewish day schools. We have made that choice based on our families' personal commitments and values. While the school choice that we have made for our families involves sacrifice, we are blessed with the ability to seek what we view as best for our kids.

We also live in a changed world, one very different from the one in which we grew up. Public schools fail their students with great frequency and with devastating effect. We each live in an affluent Montgomery County community that sits on the border of Philadelphia. Neither of us has to travel far to find neighbors with none of the choices enjoyed by our own children. At a minimum, that seems unfair. 

We believe that the reality of inadequate educational choice also is bad for our country and bad for the larger society of which we are proud to be a part. That assessment leads us to the view that the Jewish community's longstanding approach to education in America needs rethinking.

Our community's longtime allegiance to public education was no accident. Access to such education in major urban centers helped Jewish immigrants integrate into American society. For generations, the public schools served as the ticket to success and acceptance for millions of American Jews. It is also no accident that thousands of children of Jewish immigrants went on to careers in education, a path that led many of our own family members to middle-class respectability and a deep feeling of belonging to American culture.

For much of the 20th century, public education worked exceedingly well. So much so that the opening battles of the post -World War II movement for civil rights focused on the just demand for equal access to quality education. As we all know, and rightly take pride in, Jews took an active leadership role in that movement. It seemed like a Jewish cause to many.

But times have changed. President Barack Obama laid out the need for educational reform in his State of the Union address last week: "The question is whether all of us -- as citizens, and as parents --  are willing to do what's necessary to give every child a chance to succeed." 

We don't pretend to have all the answers, but some of the proposed solutions worry us. The potential for vouchers -- or "opportunity scholarships" -- to further blur the ever more indistinct line separating church from state is of particular concern. And yet we recognize that Jewish day schools might very well benefit from such an initiative.

We know, too, that charter schools have a mixed track record. We have seen extraordinary ones with our own eyes, but just as many don't succeed. And we continue to believe that public schools can and should still serve as unifying and welcoming institutions in communities across Pennsylvania and the country.

Education in America is a complex organism; imagining that any one initiative can fix our country's educational woes strikes us as naive.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, whom we know and admire, has brought school choice to the center of public debate in Pennsylvania. His passion and perseverance have opened our eyes to realities that are all too easy to ignore. His sense of urgency, what he calls the obligation not to lose another generation, has caught our ears. We agree that today's students and their families can't afford another decade of debate.

Despite our concerns about unintended consequences, we believe that new approaches deserve to be tried. We invite the entire Jewish community to join us in looking carefully, in listening intently, and in thinking anew about education in America in the 21st century.

Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin is the religious leader of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park. Rabbi David Ackerman is the religious leader of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.

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