BURG: Paul Ryan is all about choice

Parents should pick schools

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With Rep. Paul Ryan joining Mitt Romney on the Republican presidential ticket, the issue of school choice may gain some much-needed traction. From both a faith and a political perspective, parental choice in education is a key issue for both men.

As a devout Catholic, Mr. Ryan understands why religious families like mine feel obligated to educate their children in a private parochial school. Providing children with a strong religious education is an integral aspect of Jewish life for most Orthodox and many non-Orthodox Jewish families. That is often the case for families of any faith.

Mr. Romney, as a Mormon, also understands this obligation.

Both Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney do more than sympathize. They believe that offering all parents — whether religious or not — more choices about where to educate their children will improve education for all children. They’re willing to talk openly about the issue and seem committed to backing up their belief with policy.

Just a few months ago, Mr. Romney delivered a major public policy discussion where he promised to “expand parental choice in an unprecedented way.” He favors using public funds to allow students to attend private schools and is willing to consider innovative programs to make this work for a variety of families. That is because he believes that so many American public schools have failed, especially when it comes to educating minority students. It’s why he has called revamping this system “the civil rights issue of our era.”

Mr. Ryan echoes Mr. Romney’s stances with his own belief that “education ought to be governed by state and local boards” because they are “more ably qualified to determine student need” than the federal government. He’s seen this first hand, coming from Wisconsin, home of the nation’s oldest voucher program. This program has benefited countless students — including many Jewish day school students — with the ability to choose which educational vehicle best fits their needs.

When President Obama’s new budget did not extend funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allows low-income students to use vouchers to attend better private schools, Mr. Ryan joined others in Congress to keep it alive. This year, nearly 300 new students enrolled in the program.

Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan’s outspokenness stands in contrast to the Democrats’ traditional reluctance to support school choice. That is why a few months ago, I traveled to the White House with a delegation of rabbis and Orthodox Jewish leaders to ask Mr. Obama where he stood on the issue of educational opportunity and choice in our country. To his credit, the president told our group that he would help private schools obtain the federal funds they are entitled to and assist in removing the logjams preventing the funds from being distributed by the states.

Add this to the Romney/Ryan stance, and the fact that since 2010, 14 states have introduced or expanded private school vouchers, it is clear that the government may not be able to continue to stonewall on the issue much longer. Nor should it.

Leaders from across the political spectrum care about this issue. Earlier this year, my organization co-sponsored an event where Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, defended his decision to support a New Jersey school choice bill. He told our supporters that with existing public education policy, “we have created a system that chokes out potential of millions of children trapped in schools that deny the beauty of their genius.”

This is a conversation our nation desperately needs to have and I believe that Mr. Ryan will add an interesting perspective to it. While this election will focus deeply on economic issues, we can’t deny that improving education is a key piece of this puzzle. The more open we are to this discussion, the more we will develop innovative ideas and creative solutions. That, after all, is what education is all about.

Rabbi Steven Burg is executive director of the New York-based Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

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