School choice is a parent's right
Aref Assaf, PhD
June 1, 2011
First published on the
Star Ledger's NJ Voices on June 2, 201. Guest Columnsit in the print edition
Daily Record, June 13, 2011
“It is only the tyranny of the status quo that leads us to take it for
granted that in schooling, government monopoly is the best way for the
government to achieve its objective.”
—The School Choice Advocate (January 2004)
This is a topic of great interest to our NJ Muslim community educators and
parents. They just don’t know it yet. It’s about school choice. It is a topic
that interfaith groups especially need to consider. Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco
(R-Boonton) recently introduced
Parental Program Act. If you are into legalese, then you will enjoy reading
the bill. If you are not, then know this: As a parent who pays property taxes to
fund public education, I should have the right to send my children to any school
in the system or outside of it. I know what’s best for my children.
“School choice”, “school vouchers” and “parental choice” are acronyms for
an idea devised over 56 years ago by the late Noble laureate
Milton Friedman who argued then
that government monopoly of public schools has failed to produce the expected
educational services to our children. Milton Friedman came up with the idea of a
universal voucher system, where the money follows the child to the school chosen
by the parents. Concisely put, Freidman argues almost that by separating
government financing of education from government administration of schools,
parents at all income levels would have the freedom to choose the schools their
children attend. This is also a hot topic where political affiliations stand
clear of any reasonable comprise any time soon. For some, this choice is racism
in disguise, of selfish priorities at the expense of societal benefits.
Opponents believe that if parents are given the chance to place their children
in the schools they feel most fit for their expectations, then the public school
system will be devoid of smart and gifted students, and more importantly, school
funding will be broken. They further argue that increasing educational choice is
likely to increase separation of students by race, social class, and cultural
background. Research conducted by James Coleman found that segregation by race
and economic class were more severe in public schools than in private schools,
even though the public school system enrolls a higher total percentage of
Supporters, on the other hand, argue that education of their children is a
service they pay for but one which they cannot effectively evaluate based on the
performance of the school. Parents should be able to send their children to the
school of their choice and without being burdened by additional tuition fees.
Pro school choice pundits argue that greater choice in public education is
likely, by itself, to increase either the variety of programs available to
students or the overall performance of schools. And this is what Harvard
economist Caroline Minter-Hoxby has shown to be false in her 1997 paper titled
"Evidence on School Choice: What We Learn from the Traditional Forms of School
Choice in the U.S." In that work, Minter-Hoxby demonstrates that increased
competition between schools and increased parental choice of schools and school
districts does indeed have some positive effect on academic achievement, but the
improvements are modest and little innovation and variety can be traced to
choice programs which limit themselves to the public sector.
Finally, a landmark 2007 study on school choice by
Herbert J. Walberg concludes that the consensus of the high-quality
international research overwhelmingly "favors competition and parental choice in
education over the monopoly systems that dominate the United States and many
other industrialized countries."
American Muslims are natural proponents for school choice. Yet it is a
topic that is rarely discussed. Some would argue that civil and religious rights
violations have overshadowed other important considerations. Educating their
children in Muslim school is a dream for many due to the shortage of such
schools and more importantly because of the additional tuition they must pay.
However, the community has been absent from the political debate over school
choice. This disconnect between core positions and political engagement is
unsustainable, ill conceived and must be reversed.
American Muslims are not part of the grassroots movement and their
concerns are not on the table. If we as taxpaying parents choose to send our
kids to private schools (Muslim schools), we should not be forced to pay for
their education twice: one in property taxes and the other in school tuition.
Parents should be able to receive a scholarship equal to the taxes paid when
they take their children into another school outside of their district.
Here is an opportunity for American Muslims to ensure that their children
receive a proper education in a school of their choosing. Just imagine if we
succeeded, the financial burden on Muslim parents, many of whom cannot afford
the close to $1000 a month in tuition per child, will no longer exist. There are
about twenty State-accredited Muslim schools in New Jersey excluding the weekend
schools which are not accredited (See list below).
As the NJ Muslim population soon reaches close to the one million mark, we must
begin to advocate our preferences relating to the education of our children. Our
choices will need to migrate to the public sphere. Our leaders, community,
religious, intellectual and academic, should endeavor to hold a conference
outlining the pros and cons of school choice.
Politicians pay careful attention to grassroots positions if such
positions mean a political windfall for them. Thus far, we do not exist on the
political radar of policy makers in whom we have placed our trust to do what's
right for us and our children. One such position is to hedge our political and
financial support for political candidates based on their position on school
Do not be surprised when you find out that most Democratic politicians are
not in favor school choice for reasons I will allude to in a future column. In
case you do not know, our current Republican Governor, Chris Christie, is an
avid proponent of the school choice idea making him a natural enemy for the
powerful teacher unions. He is moving in the right direction, I believe. He has
signed The Interdistrict
Public School Choice Act of 2010 which allows students and their families by
providing students with the option of attending a public school outside their
district of residence without cost to their parents. Noticeably, only 74
schools have so
far opted to join this program. The law, to take effect this coming school year,
however, expressly excludes private schools from participating in this program.
Assemblyman Bucco's bill attempts to remove the restriction.
I am an advocate for public education, lest anyone have doubts. I think it is
the most important duty of our government. My five children have all gone
through the public school system. By any measure they have received an excellent
education. It is no secret however that the US lags behind many less advanced
nation in educational performance. For me I know that if I were given the choice
and a Muslim school existed nearby, I would have opted for the Muslim school.
This is my personal choice to ensure my children receive sufficient spiritual
and academic instruction. Lacking such an option placed additional burdens on
the family. While I support the mandate for public education, I still believe
public schools are not the only vehicles to deliver on such a mandate.
Freedom of choice is the heart of democracy.
Aref Assaf, PhD
American Arab Forum
P.S: Three schools
, run by IEF, operate in Northern New Jersey
school operates in Central New Jersey. The first Islamic school in NJ,
Al-Ghastly School, was founded in 1984. I am in the process of concluding a
paper on the status of Muslim schools in New Jersey and will report my findings
I am in the process of drafting a speech for presentation at a conference on
school choice and would love to hear from you. A shorter column is planned as
well. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, I welcome your careful
comments. Please forward this column to your links in education, school boards
and mosque funding organs.
What Does a Voucher Buy?
A Closer Look at the Cost of
NJ School Report Card
New Jersey Islamic High Schools
New Jersey Islamic Elementary Schools