Education has always been a Jewish priority.
The Talmud exhorts us to remember favorably Yehoshua ben Gamla, “for were it not for him, the Torah would have been forgotten by Israel.” Concerned that the children of poor families —particularly orphans — did not have access to a quality Torah education, ben Gamla mandated that every Jewish community hire teachers to educate every child from the age of 6 or 7 on up. For this, the sages credited ben Gamla with saving Judaism itself.
Since then, universal access to education has been a central Jewish value. That’s why Jews should be happy to support the education of our Gentile neighbors — and unashamed to advocate for equal treatment for our own children.
Proposition 305 would enact the expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program that the state Legislature passed last year. ESAs allow families to use 90 percent of the state’s portion of per-pupil funding (about $5,600 for typical students) for a variety of educational options, including private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curricula, educational therapy and more. Families can roll over unused funds from year to year to save for later educational expenses, including college. The local and federal portions of education funding (about $4,000 of the $9,592 per pupil on average) remain with the district schools.
Initially, only students with special needs were eligible for an ESA. Subsequently, the Legislature expanded access to students assigned to district schools that received a “D” or “F” grade, children of active-duty military personnel or those killed in the line of duty, students living on Native American reservations, and children adopted through the state foster care system. Last year, the Legislature attempted to move closer to fulfilling the promise of public education by expanding access to all students.
Expanding access to ESAs is both a matter of equity for the Jewish community and would benefit all Arizonan students — especially those who currently lack access to a variety of high-quality educational opportunities.
Public education should serve all students, but no one school is the right fit for all the children who just happen to live nearby. Geographic assignment is unfair to students whose parents cannot afford to live in more expensive areas with higher-quality district schools. District schooling is also unfair to minority populations that cannot directly benefit from it, like observant Jews, for whom immersive religious education, which reflects our values and it set to the rhythms of our calendar, is a necessity, not a mere luxury.
Here, again, Jewish wisdom has much to offer. On the very page following Yehoshua ben Gamla’s vision, the Talmud rules that an established teacher could not prevent a newcomer from teaching in the vicinity, even if he loses all his students to the new teacher. Rather, the Talmud states: kinat soferim tarbeh chokhmah (“jealousy among the scholars increases wisdom”).
Two aspects of this ruling are worth highlighting. First, the sages’ primary concern was that students receive the best possible education, even at the potential expense of a teacher’s livelihood. In the realm of education, the needs of students come before the needs of adults.
Second, the sages recognized that educational choice is beneficial for students. When families have options, teachers and schools are motivated to perform as well as possible. The sages saw choice and competition as stronger guarantors of educational quality than good intentions alone.
Modern research confirms the sages’ insights. Of 18 random-assignment studies (the gold standard of social science), 13 have found positive effects on the test scores of participating students, four found no visible effect and only two found a negative effect on test scores in the first few years of Louisiana’s voucher program. Additionally, four out of five studies found positive effects on educational attainment, and the fifth found no effect.
The benefits of expanded choice extend to non-participating students as well. Thirty-two out of 34 academic studies of the effects of school choice programs on district school students found statistically significant positive effects. One found no visible effects and only one found a small negative effect.
Here in Arizona, the expansions in educational choice over the last few decades — charter schools, inter-district enrollment, tax-credit scholarships and ESAs — appear to be having salutary effects. From 2009 to 2017, Arizona led the nation in gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “nation’s report card.” Indeed, Arizona was one of only two states to produce gains on all six tests (fourth and eighth-grade math, reading and science).
In the interests of families, freedom, fairness and a brighter future, the Jewish community should support Proposition 305. JN
Yehoshua Bedrick is a resident of Phoenix and board member of the Arizona Jewish Community Alliance.