Private religious schools also have public responsibilities

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Are private schools in this country allowed to disregard state proficiency standards in English, math, and US history? This is the question at the heart of a recent high-profile investigative report The New York Times. The article focuses on New York’s Hasidic education system, whose students almost uniformly fail standardized state tests in reading and math. A key part of the controversy is that New York’s Hasidic schools receive massive public financial support — $1 billion over the past four years — even as school administrators openly defy the state’s demand for educate their students to the bare minimum in secular education. studies.

Hasidic leaders and parents have reacted with fury to what they see as a blatant attack on their way of life and on their right to educate their children in their traditions. Where the Time highlights malfeasance and illiteracy, members of the Hasidic community see a rigorous Jewish upbringing and a continuation of cherished values ​​and ways of life.

We understand and sympathize with the Hasidim’s desire to educate children in the traditions and texts that give meaning to their community. The ability to preserve distinct religious traditions and pass them on to the next generation is, after all, central to the ideal of cultural pluralism for which the United States stands. Hasidic Jews are deeply suspicious of state intervention in the private school systems in which they educate their children. They fear that exposure to secular norms will alienate their children from long-established community traditions. And that fear is not far-fetched, given that one of the goals of public education in this country in the 20th century, especially when it involves immigrant communities, has been to advance the project of assimilation and integration into the American mainstream, which has historically meant the imposition of dominant Protestant and white cultural norms.

In light of this understandable impulse to resist assimilation, some might say the American way is live and let live. Shouldn’t religious groups be allowed to educate their children as they see fit? The only possible answer is “yes, but”. Yes, they should be allowed to immerse their children in a diet rich in traditional religious sources, customs and lifestyles. Yes, they should be allowed to be educated in languages ​​other than English. And yes, they should be eligible for the kinds of state supports that children in private schools have long received, including transportation and remedial and special education services, in addition to programs, such as subsidized meals. and after-school care, for which all low-income children are eligible.

But no, they shouldn’t be able to receive government funding for their private education system while flouting minimum education requirements – including basic English literacy – which increase but don’t upset their own standards. community education. A basic math and English education will not negate years and years of deep exposure to biblical and rabbinic sources. It didn’t have that effect at an earlier stage of those communities in the United States. When the United Talmudic Academy, the largest of the Hasidic educational systems and the focal point of The New York Times‘ report, first compiled by Rebbe Satmar in the mid-20th century, he insisted on sufficient secular education to enable graduates to enter the labor market. There is no reason why such respect for state educational mandates cannot be combined with a strong Jewish curriculum today.

Although this is a story about Hasidic Jews in New York, it is no less a story about America. The country has promoted educational policies that have sometimes favored integration and at other times supported those who oppose the integration of children of different religions, ethnicities and races into a culture and a unique education system. The first and most powerful expression of the integrationist impulse in the United States was the “common schools” movement, founded by Horace Mann in the 1830s, which gave birth to the public school system as we know it. This original egalitarian vision of public education not only promised a decent education for every child in the nation; it also offers to bring together children from different backgrounds.

The common school movement has always had its detractors, including those who have pointed to the “hollow hope” of desegregation and the denial of equal educational resources and opportunities to blacks and other racial minorities. Others, however, criticized him not for failing to fulfill his promise of integration, but for having succeeded too well in this project. Among the most vocal critics of this aspect of public education were Catholics, who objected to the way Protestants, who controlled public schools in many parts of the country, used them to “Americanize” and essentially Protestantize the children of Catholic immigrants.

One way to escape the cultural hegemony of the “Protestant establishment” was to withdraw from public schools and send one’s children to private schools of one’s choosing. In 1925, the Supreme Court supported Catholic parents and schools by striking down an Oregon state law that banned private schools and made public education compulsory. In doing so, the Court explicitly endorsed the criticism of assimilation, stating that the Constitution “excludes the general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction only from public teachers”. Two years earlier, the Court sided with a Lutheran teacher who claimed that a Nebraska law prohibiting teaching in a language other than English – in this case, Bible lessons in German – was unconstitutional.

Although the Court insisted that the legislature was limited in its ability “to foster a people cohesive with American ideals,” it did not deny the state the right to promote shared civic values. Indeed, it asserted “the power of the state to compel attendance at school and to make reasonable regulations for all schools”, both public and private, as declared by the Supreme Court in 1923. And so the situation remained for decades, with special attention. balance struck between state control and parents’ right to control their children’s education.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the pendulum began to swing in the direction of giving greater control over education to parents and sub-communities. Then it was not the Jews but other religious and cultural subgroups, including African Americans and Puerto Ricans, who resisted the established system, rejecting the integrationist ideal and demanding oversight of their own educational systems. . One such example was the community-controlled school board formed in 1968 in the Brownsville and Ocean Hill neighborhoods of Brooklyn, which led to a clash between Jewish teachers and administrators and parents seeking to introduce an Afrocentric curriculum for their children. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled in the famous Wisconsin v. Yoder case that the Amish were entitled to be exempt from the state’s compulsory education law after eighth grade. This was the first time the Supreme Court had explicitly described the parental right to control education as a matter of religious freedom protected by the First Amendment.

From this point on, demands for greater educational autonomy for parents grew, both within the public school system and in the growing body of alternatives to public schools, including homeschooling. and charter schools in addition to secular and religious private schools. A new coalition of parents of faith – Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Jews – has emerged, supported by a powerful political movement of religious conservatives who reject not only attempts to impose secular educational requirements on their children, but any constraint on the right to live their religious life as they see fit. The movement has been extraordinarily effective in advancing the principle of religious freedom as a central tenet of American legal and political discourse. One need only recall the most recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court to allow prayer at public school events and to require state funding for religious education when state grants are made. available to secular private schools.

As they have been in the past, schools are once again a prime battleground in America’s culture wars. Religious freedom advocates, as well as opponents of the teaching of so-called critical race theory in public schools and supporters of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, have sought to silence any mention of race or sexuality and have demanded the right to opt out of any public school classes that offend their sensibilities. Similarly, Hasidic parents in New York assert control over the education that their children receive without having to submit to “substantial equivalency requirements” which mandate a minimum proficiency in English, math and other secular subjects. While these efforts have different goals, they are united by the idea that parents have the exclusive right to shape the education of their children.

But the need to maintain minimum educational requirements for all children is particularly important given the democratic crisis that this country is going through, and in particular in the aftermath of the January 6 uprising. The pendulum of political culture has swung too far towards a political and religious libertarianism that allows individuals and groups to put forward their own vision of this country and its institutions. Indeed, some wish to see it shift further: the most radical call for the abolition of public education and the complete deregulation of private education. Americans must work to push the pendulum in the opposite direction, to rearticulate the ideal of a common good in which all share, as well as to strengthen the values ​​and institutions of democracy for which this country, at its best, represents .


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