Event Transcript of Panel on the Issues of School Choice

With Dr. Jay Greene and Professor Henry Levin
Louis Finkelstein Institute
March 15, 2005

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DR. MITTLEMAN: Good evening. My name is Alan Mittleman. I'm the director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies here at The Jewish Theological Seminary. The Finkelstein Institute, which was founded by the legendary chancellor of JTS, Louis Finkelstein, was created in 1938 to serve as a venue for the interfaith consideration and discussion of public affairs that involved moral and religious dimensions. It has gone through many incarnations since then. In its current incarnation, the Institute's forums look at public-policy issues of significance to the Jewish community and the general community.

I'm happy to welcome you. I want to welcome Rabbi Ezra Finkelstein, the son of Louis Finkelstein, who is here. I'm very pleased to also welcome people affiliated with the Manhattan Institute as well as Columbia University's Teachers College.

I'm going to make a few introductory remarks about the topic and then introduce our speakers.

Our topic is a complex policy question, with deep ethical and political implications: school choice. In all of its many forms, it encompasses: choice within public school districts; choice among public school districts; choice of semiautonomous charter schools; and choice for private and parochial schools subsidized by publicly funded vouchers or tax credits. School choice evokes fundamental problems.

Since the origins of the common school movement in the nineteenth century, schools have been about more than instruction. Above and beyond inculcating basic skills of literacy and numeracy, public schools have aimed to educate citizens, transfer democratic values and mores, as well as assimilate new Americans into these patterns of belief and behavior.

From the beginning, there have been tensions between these more or less consensual norms and the tradition-based preferences of families. These tensions were particularly acute in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries when the burgeoning Catholic population felt that the public schools were Protestant in tone and prejudicial in fact. The Protestant majority tried to impede the growth of a parallel Catholic school system, especially of the public funding of such a system, by laws that required students to attend public schools as well as laws—so called Blaine Amendments, of which many are still on the books—that prohibited public money from going to sectarian schools, a thinly veiled reference to Catholic schools.

Early in the twentieth century, the Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision secured the legal right to educate children in non-public schools. But not until 2002 was a crack in the constitutional ban on public funding of private schools, including religious schools, made in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Cleveland voucher case.

Here is a conflict between a perceived public good—not just perceived: the education of democratic citizens with respect to certain broadly shared standards and goals—and the equal good of liberty—in this case, the liberty of parents to educate children in their own moral traditions.

To a certain extent, the locally controlled, extremely diverse cultures of schooling in the United States have mitigated this conflict. But a firmer...a product of the upheavals of the 1960s, a revival of evangelical religion, the very attempt to make schools more inclusive by eliminating residual religious practices, as well as other factors, have greatly increased demands for more choice in schooling in the past few decades.

Add to this a discontent with and a loss of trust in government, seemingly retractable problems with some urban schools, recent legal developments such as the No-Child-Left-Behind Act that mandates choice for students in persistently failing schools, and the conservative political climate opportune for school-choice initiatives—and we have a potent movement for school choice.

We also have a potent opposition in which many in the Jewish community have figured prominently. School choice is a neuralgic issue for Jews, with some advocating its advantages for eventual public support of Jewish education, with all of its benefits to the Jewish community, while others fervently oppose some school choice plans on constitutional grounds—the Zelman case not withstanding—as well as on moral and political grounds.

At the heart of education, of course, is the student. How do various choice regimes affect the academic achievements of students who choose? How does increasing educational choice affect students who remain in traditional public schools? How does choice affect those democratic values and mores that public education was intended to secure, such as tolerance, civic participation, and racial integration?

We are fortunate tonight to have two authorities on these subjects to inform us and to guide our discussion. Our first speaker is Dr. Jay Greene. Dr. Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Education Research Office, where he conducts research and writes about education policy. His research was cited four times in the Supreme Court's opinions in the landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case on... He has conducted evaluations of school choice and accountability programs in his native Florida, as well as in Charlotte, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and San Antonio, and he has published research on high-school graduation rates, charter schools, and special education. He received his PhD in government from Harvard University.

Professor Henry Levin is the William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, a nonpartisan entity. He is a specialist in the economics of education and human resources and has published 16 books and almost 300 articles on these and related subjects.

In 1991, the New York Times named him one of nine national leaders for "Innovation in Education." At present, he is doing research on educational reform, educational vouchers, cost-effectiveness analysis, financing educational equity, and education privatization.

And so, without further ado, Dr. Greene.

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