The Municipality Plays Hardball with Torah Education

I’ve written before about our choice of school for our first grader. All in all, we’ve been pleased with what she’s gotten there. Not thrilled, not head over heels, but pleased. It has met our expectations in terms of most of our important benchmarks: friends, curriculum, competence and responsiveness of teachers, accessibility and flexibility on the part of the administration.

Over the past few weeks, the annual rumblings about starting a “Mamlachti Dati Torani” school (basically, a Torah-oriented public school) have begun again. There has been a drive to get people to give preliminary registration details, ostensibly to gauge interest, in the hopes of starting this new school in the fall or, at the very latest, the fall of 2009. I’ve gotten several messages, via email, facebook, phone, etc., requesting that I send the registration details to the municipality. I was considering doing so, because surely it can’t hurt. Right?

Not necessarily. I had the occasion to speak with a member of the Modiin City Council – actually one of the few religious members of it – about the issue. Upon the conclusion of the conversation, I had a very good idea where this impetus comes from and what its agenda is. While I understand and respect it, I strongly disagree with it.

The city council member gave several reasons that we would be better off in the M”D Torani school:

1) Public education is better than private (or, in the case of Israel, ‘recognized, unofficial’) education in general, because public schools are supervised by the Ministry of Education and meets its standards for quality, whereas anything can go on in a private school.

2) It’s better to send kids to public school, because private school costs can get expensive, leaving public schools with only the kids who can’t afford private education, and eventually causing the collapse of the religious public schools.

3) The facilities of the current school (Lemaan Achai) are decrepit and overcrowded.

4) Lemaan Achai might be evicted from Modiin because it’s unofficial and because many, if not most, of its pupils come from outside of Modiin.

Here’s my response, point by point:

1) This point is based on the big-government semi-socialist norm that the government and its ministries know how to educate my kids better than I do. I do not believe, and never will believe, this to be true. I told the local politician that the school is under better supervision than the Ministry of Education. The politician asked who. I responded, “My Wife’s”. The superiority of private education in this regard is manifold:

a. A private school, or this one in particular, is directly responsive to the needs of the parent. My wife and her good friend were upset with something that was happening in the school, they met with the principal, and the issue was solved (and it was not a simple issue; they asked for the addition of a full-time security guard at the school). The fewer bureaucratic layers stand between the consumer (parent, in this case) and the service provider (the school in this case), the less interference accumulates in the communications between the two, AND the more executive power is consolidated with people who are actually accessible to the parent body.

b. Large education systems are, by definition, Procrustean beds (or as Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky put it, a Sdeim bettl). The smaller and more flexible a school system, the more quickly it can be adapted to the particular needs of its students. Private education must respond to market forces. If its quality is poor, then people will stop sending their children there (this is obviously a sliding scale; different parents want different features, can afford different things, etc.). I’m not worried that my child will get a sub-par education at the private school for the very simple reason that as soon as I feel that the education is sub-par (or that she would be better served at a different school), then we would switch her. The minute that the city succeeds in shutting down private alternatives, competition dies.

2) This argument, popular in the U.S. as well, implies that wealthier families or families who are willing to invest more in the education of their children should sacrifice the education of their children for some sort of “greater good”. This thinking is flawed for several reasons:

a. It clearly stems from a Socialist worldview. In and of itself, that’s not automatically evil. The issue is that there are certain areas where I’m willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, and others where I’m not. The education of my children is one where I’m not.

b. It assumes that the presence of my child improves the educational experience of those “underprivileged” children. I’m highly skeptical of that assumption. One would think that a smaller public school would actually improve its education – more resources per child, more attention per child, etc.

c. It assumes that the privileged and underprivileged students would be fully integrated in the public school setting. There might be some integration, but not much. There’s also plenty of diversity within this particular private school, since it is very affordable.

d. It confuses the municipality’s responsibility with my responsibility. The municipal gov’t/ Ministry of Education are responsible to provide quality education for every child. They must not count on the presence of my child to help them do their job. If they want my child to attend the schools they build with my tax money, then they have a responsibility to build a compelling case for me to do so by providing quality education, not by resorting to guilt or by closing or hamstringing the competition.

3) This one’s pretty cynical. The current school has funds to build a building, but the Municipality has been consistently preventing them from obtaining land. I don’t need the city to give the land away, like it does for other schools. It needs to get the heck out of the way, though. This is a monopolistic practice (as behooves a government ministry) which severely constrains competition. This argument adds insult to injury.

4) This is another strong-arm tactic. It’s true that many of the pupils in this school come from outside of Modiin, just as many hail from Modiin. This means that there’s a regional market for a school which no single municipal/ district entity can support. Thus, if each local government insists on serving only its constituents, the needs of all those pupils will never be served. I wonder if the same argument would be lodged against a science or humanities magnet school. Would people complain that we’re teaching physics to the children of, say Lapid or Kfar Daniel? And is it too much to ask these local governments to sit down and divide the pie proportionally?

Finally, one might say that, in the spirit of competition, the new school should be allowed to open, because competition is good for everyone. Isn’t that what I’m arguing? Don’t I believe that competition is a good thing, in education as well?

The answer is that I’m a strong believer in the FREE market and OPEN competition. I fear, in this instance, that once the municipality opens their competing school, it will use its existence to force the other school to close or leave town. Once that happens, it no longer has much interest in providing a good education (no competition!), and will then go to hell in a hand basket. In this scenario, which I unfortunately believe to be very likely, we would be left with no good alternatives, not two.

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