Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer. Union leader Sandy Feldman. Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker. What do they all have in common? Besides being Jewish and making an indelible impact on our world, they all graduated from the same public school, Brooklyn’s James Madison High School.
American Jewry is the most dynamic and successful diaspora in the world—as the legacy of these six accomplished men and women, together with so many others, makes clear. But it wasn’t always this way. We got here, in large part, because of our historic commitment to public education.
When the doors of power and privilege were largely shut to American Jews, public schools were open and available. Stories abound about how public elementary, middle and high schools, as well as colleges and universities like the City University of New York, served as our bulwark against anti-Semitism and the bigotry of social exclusion. For Jews and so many others in American society, our public education system became the vehicle through which we could help all children achieve their dreams; it also became society’s way to build our economy, promote our pluralism and protect our democracy.
But our commitment to public education should not be just a fond recollection of how it helped us become who we are. That commitment must be embedded in the precepts and values of our religion. As a practicing Jew who proudly sits in the rebbetzin’s seat at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, I am reminded every day—and certainly every Shabbat, by my partner, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, and our other rabbis and lay leaders—of our obligations to each other and the world: to demand justice, to help the hungry and the poor, to teach, to repair the world. That’s why it is so important that, as Jews, we don’t abandon public education. Indeed, as Jews, our tradition teaches us to do everything we can to reclaim public education’s promise.
A high-quality public education can build much-needed skills and knowledge. It can help children reach their God-given potential. It can stabilize communities and families. It can strengthen economies. It can combat the kind of fear and despair that evolves into hatred.
But today, austerity, privatization and inequity are denying too many children the path to a better future. Take what Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recently proposed here in New York: Thinly veiled under the guise of “choice,” Cuomo proposed legislation that would give tax credits for tuition to exclusive private schools. The legislation would siphon off $150 million in taxpayer money, much of it for giveaways to the rich—money that could provide desperately needed resources for our public schools.
This legislation would establish a tax credit for contributions to private organizations that give vouchers or “scholarships,” and it would pay donors back at a rate of 75 cents on the dollar for their contributions. That’s over and above the tax deduction any of us have right now for charitable contributions.
Essentially, as The New York Times editorial board noted, “The $150 million pool includes millions of dollars in tax credits for donations that could provide scholarships to private or parochial students from families with incomes of up to $300,000 a year, which hardly targets the neediest students.”
This is not an either/or situation for the many Jewish families that send their children to Jewish schools. Just as a great Jewish education is a deeply held value for many of us, so too is it a profound Jewish value to vigorously support public education that strengthens our democracy to create more opportunities for all.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel—these prophets say: Do justice. That’s why, in the face of budget cuts and privatization efforts such as this latest effort by Cuomo, Jewish activists have been on the front lines of the battle to protect our public schools.
We are standing up for our shared values, and we are united together to reclaim the promise of America. We cannot yank the ladder of opportunity out from under those who come after us. Instead, from generation to generation, we must create the opportunity for others that we have had ourselves. And that starts with fighting for the educational opportunity and social justice that has enabled our communities to thrive.
When we invest in the right of every child to achieve his or her dreams, every one of us benefits. Let’s live up to our heritage and our faith. Let’s build a legacy of progress and equality, like those graduates of James Madison High School who understand what it means to be part of a greater whole rather than just one of an elite few. The American dream belongs to all of us. That’s the choice we make.
Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.