By David Benkof
While many American Jews have been big backers of public schools, our current system discriminates against traditionally religious Americans through what I call “the frum tax.”
Here’s how the frum tax works: If you’re secular and want to educate your children with your own values, it’s free. But if you’re frum, it costs tens of thousands of dollars to do the same thing. That’s discrimination.
A common knee-jerk reaction: “By supporting the public schools, you’re helping ensure an educated society, even if your children don’t benefit directly.” But surely children who learn in religious schools also form part of an educated society.
And no, the public schools are not “values-neutral.” Public schools take strong stances on issues about which Americans differ. A version of American history built around the themes of race, class, and gender is not “neutral.” There are many ways to teach our nation’s history, such as focusing on the growth of capitalism or on the contributions of great men. Jews from Orthodox sects that believe the Earth is less than 6,000 years old don’t want to pay both for (public) schools that reject that view and for (religious) schools that support it.
It’s not the government’s business to decide which historiographical or cosmological ideas are correct and to confiscate money from citizens who have the “wrong” views in order to promulgate the “right” ones.
Secular people, too, can hold minority beliefs in a system requiring them to compromise their principles or pay huge fines. Public-school boosters in the Jewish community might contemplate the following:
• A 2012 Tennessee law protects science teachers who present ideas that dissent from the scholarly consensus on issues like evolution and climate change.
• The Texas education board has repeatedly rejected increasing Latino history in the curriculum for a state in which four in ten residents are Hispanic.
• Sex education is optional in Mississippi, but when taught, it can discuss abstinence only.
• Republicans on the school board of a district outside Denver have been trying to implement an American history curriculum promoting “patriotism” and “the benefits of the free-enterprise system” while downplaying “civil disorder, social strife, or disregard of the law.”
How would a liberal stuck in a district pushing all of the above feel about subsidizing what she considers an odious curriculum, while having to pay thousands of dollars to shield her kids from its educational agenda?
Well, that’s how frum people feel.
Now, the response of many liberals to such policies is that they’re unconstitutional, or at least wrong. But do they really want to wait for the ACLU to sue and maybe convince a judge to overturn them? Or must they elect a new school board in unfriendly territory?
Surely there’s a way for all people to educate their kids with their own values at equal prices. A voucher system of school choice seems to fit that bill.
Three years ago, the school district of Ramapo, New York, elected a school board with a Chassidic majority. Ramapo includes cities such as Monsey and New Square, which are heavily populated by Orthodox Jews. Since the state’s educational structure massively discriminates against such voters—taking their money while barely helping their children’s education—the board began to make cuts to security staff, sports teams, AP classes, and more.
The school board has been attacked for its “selfishness” and lack of community-mindedness. But if secular students in the district are now being treated unfairly, the frum majority living there has suffered too—and for a much longer time. Good for the Orthodox voters in the area for upholding America’s founding principle of “no taxation without representation.”
So, certainly, we can respond to the frum tax with a district-by-district war over school spending and curricular values—and perhaps we should. But I’d much prefer a system like vouchers and school choice to let all parents decide what their children learn in school.
A version of this essay appeared in the Daily Caller. Follow David Benkof on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or e-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.