Commentary

Yeshiva Battle Raises Fundamental Question, “What Do We Owe the Children?”

Understanding what should be the default level of government intervention in a free society isn’t hard. Individuals able to make informed, rational decisions, as long as they do not impose on others by force or fraud, ought to be able to interact without government interference. But children are generally considered incapable of making such decisions about numerous aspects of their lives. Which is why the role of government in education is more complicated than in many other matters, and why a burgeoning battle over yeshivas—Orthodox Jewish schools—in New York cannot be resolved with a simple, “Let the families do what they want.”

At issue is whether some yeshivas are providing children with the educational foundations they need to eventually function as independent adults. Yeshiva graduate Shulem Deen asserted in the New York Times that some yeshivas focus almost exclusively on teaching Hebrew and religion, and furnish little instruction in English or other basic skills. “I know about the cost” of such an education, he wrote, including great difficulty finding employment sufficient to sustain a family.

Yeshiva defenders argue in part that the schools are being smeared. “There are more than 440 yeshivas in New York state, educating 165,000 students,” wrote Rabbis Elya Brudny and Yisroel Reisman in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “There will always be schools that need to improve and students who can be better served. But underperforming schools are the outliers, and they don’t define the yeshiva system.”

What is the right balance between children’s need to be equipped for eventual independence, and the freedom of the nation’s wonderfully diverse communities?

Of particular concern not just to the rabbis, but people running religious schools of various stripes in New York, is a state requirement that private institutions provide an education “substantially equivalent” to that in the public schools. This is where the much deeper, more essential response, grounded in freedom and pluralism, from yeshiva advocates comes in.

“Parents who want to send their children to a school offering a course list devised by the state enroll their children in the local public school,” wrote Brudny and Reisman. “But parents who choose religious education want their children to have a specific moral, ethical and religious framework for life.”

So what is the right balance between children’s need to be equipped for eventual independence, and the freedom of the nation’s wonderfully diverse communities?

The answer is emphatically not to require that private schools furnish the same education as public institutions. Freedom as an adult means little if as a child your mind is engineered to think as the state demands. And there is grave danger to diversity and freedom of thought if government dictates that education cannot be solidly constructed around conceptions of what is good and right outside the mainstream.

The good news for pluralism is that it is difficult to impose a strong curriculum on diverse people. But that is bad news for peace and educational quality. What we see in the history of American public schooling is where there have been diverse views, efforts to standardize have sometimes been met by stiff resistance and painful conflict, conflict that has frequently been evaded by people separating themselves or avoided by providing lowest-common-denominator instruction.

Quite simply, equality, peace, and educational rigor need parental and educator freedom. And yet…

Whether parents or the state are making educational decisions, someone is imposing on a child. We accept this because someone other than the child must make such decisions, but to ultimately be a free person that child must be equipped, by the time they have reached adulthood, to make decisions for him or herself. So the answer to what we owe children cannot end at “whatever parents choose” if what they choose would render a child unable to eventually exercise the liberty to which all are entitled.

The way to ensure the eventual liberty of the child, while protecting freedom and diversity in society, is a system in which educators are free to offer education as they see fit—Orthodox Jewish, Roman Catholic, science-intensive, arts-based, etc.—and parents are free to choose. The only role for the state would be to intervene, were a child not being provided with the skills necessary to become a self-governing adult.

What are those skills? There are grounds to debate the exact lines, but I would submit only literacy—including an ability to write—in English, and numeracy perhaps to the level of basic algebra. The former, because while English is not the country’s official language it is the de facto national language, and the latter because it is a gateway to higher math, though most adults use far less.

State intervention would only occur were there reasonable suspicion a child was not receiving these basic skills. Evidence would be collected, and if sufficient, parents would be charged with neglect. Then only if the parents admitted guilt, or were found guilty in a court of law, would government officials be empowered to intervene in a child’s education.

But what of science, history, and other subjects beyond basic skills?

The vast majority of schools would almost certainly teach them, because parents want their kids well prepared for life after high school. But reading and calculating are the skills that enable people to access all the other fields, while state mandates beyond those skills means moving into topics over which people with different values or backgrounds disagree, positioning the state to impose one set of values and cultures on all.

For the sake of freedom, private schools must never be required to provide instruction “substantially equivalent” to state institutions. But that does not mean government should give absolute deference to parents. If a child is kept from attaining the basic skills necessary for self-government, that, too, is a denial of liberty.

Neal McCluskey is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of the book “Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.”