The single greatest injustice facing American parents today is that they are financially forced to send their children to schools not of their choosing. If you want to understand the level of unfairness you need look no further than my home state of New Jersey. Saturday's Wall Street Journal reported that our state's Supreme Court has "taken control of the $11 billion Property Tax Relief Fund," funded by our astronomical, highest-in-the-nation, property taxes. The Journal reports, "The court sends more than half of the state aid to 31 largely urban "special needs" school districts with the remaining 554 largely suburban towns fighting over the rest."
Want to know how badly abused our tax dollars are in the State's education system? A single community, Asbury Park, gets thirty thousand dollars per pupil -- enough to send them to the country's best prep schools -- and still "they produce dismal test results."
But I knew well before the article appeared what suckers we New Jersey tax payers are from my own community of Englewood where you have to sell a kidney to afford the sky-high property taxes that fund an approximately twenty-three thousand dollars per pupil public school expenditure that likewise produces poor test results.
Included within our community are approximately six hundred hard-working orthodox Jewish families that make up the lion's share of the tax base. But not one of those families gets even a ten dollar subsidy from their taxes to help pay the tuition for their children's religious school, which is curious when you consider how much money the government saves by having children in a values-based education system which produces far lower delinquency rates.
Now, since we read daily of the non-stop corruption and waste that seems endemic to our state, why do we in New Jersey take it? Why aren't there protests in the street? Honestly, I have no idea, other than to say it's becoming prohibitive to even live here and many have indeed begun moving out.
But be that as it may, I personally know scores of religious Jewish families for whom this injustice is beginning to break the bank. They are slowly being bankrupted by the combination of high taxes and high tuition. There is no way on earth they can pay both. And this of course applies to Catholic parents, evangelical parents, and Islamic parents. Why does our country so strongly discriminate against responsible parents who want their kids to pray every day and be more spiritual people? What does our country have against families who believe in ethical, religious traditions? How long will parents whose only sin it is to want their children to know and love G-d be punished?
And let's not march out the over-roasted chestnut of separation of Church and State. This is not the State's money. It's the parent's money. It's their tax dollars. Why is it taken from them without any benefit to their kids?
And what if you're a parent who isn't even religious but simply disapproves of co-education? What if you're of the opinion that children, and especially girls, do much better in environments where questions of popularity among the opposite sex is minimized? Should you be forced to contravene your conscience for money?
At this stage in my life, with two children in College and another six in private Jewish schools, the tuition burden has become almost prohibitive. There is no way we can save anything since, by the time we pay Englewood property taxes and Jewish day school tuition, there simply is nothing left.
And still the Jewish community refuses to seriously address the tuition crisis with the only real solution which is to finally allow public funding for at the very least the secular departments of parochial schools. Hebrew Charter schools are a necessary first step. But walking on egg shells to forestall any kind of accusation of imparting a Jewish identity is simply not a complete solution. Less so is sending your kid to a public school and supplementing it with a Jewish tutor. That still doesn't provide for immersion into a Jewish school environment in which a child wears tzitzis and a Yarmulke, washes their hands for bread, and makes the proper blessings before eating various foods.
Let's not kid ourselves about there being any real replacement for a Jewish day school education when it comes to instilling a Jewish identity and guaranteeing that a graduate make Jewish choices later in life. Daily Jewish education amid total immersion in a Jewish environment is the single greatest guarantor that our children will proudly choose to be Jewish. The same applies to having more Jewish kids. Our community's number one threat today is not intermarriage but the pitifully low Jewish birthrate. And more families are choosing to have less children because in their minds they simply can't afford them, especially the tuition.
Next week the GA will take place in Washington, DC. Sure enough, on the lengthy agenda there is one breakout session entitled, "Accessing Federal and State Support and Services for Jewish Day Schools." That is nice, but it's nowhere near enough. Creating the political will to provide government funding for parochial school education must be our community's number one priority. It cannot be just one of many subjects. And I am declaring my willingness to work with individuals and organizations who are dedicated to seeing this become a reality.
My passion has always been to bring Jewish values to the outside world and help heal an increasingly valueless society. But that cannot and will not happen unless we raise a generation of Jewish children who are versed in Jewish texts, Jewish wisdom, and Jewish history. And if over the next decade we don't find a way to secure permanent funding for Jewish day schools the edifice will come tumbling down.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network and is the author of 'Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children' and 'Parenting with Fire.' www.shmuley.com.