Parental dissatisfaction with Covid school closures and woke curricula has sparked renewed interest in school choice in all its forms, but the recent Supreme Court decision in Carson v. Makin may increase public support for religious schools, in particular. My recent paper for the Manhattan Institute describes a project to create a nationwide network of Jewish day schools that would offer new options for Jewish families seeking combined religious and secular education for their elementary school-aged children. The project, Tamim Academies, speaks to two aspects of America’s K-12 educational system that define much of the contentious debate about schooling: that all education—public, private, and religious—should provide public or collective benefits to our society; and that all education is, of necessity, value-laden.
America’s public education system arose in the nineteenth century as part of an effort to foster the unum out of the pluribus. In the twenty-first century, however, the values that seem ascendant in public education often impinge on parents’ liberty to shape what and how their children are taught, and at what age particular topics are introduced. At their best, religious schools inculcate values consistent with American civic virtues, such as the dignity of every human life and the respect that our country’s foundational documents afford them. Religious schools can approach these necessary subjects in the context of their centuries-old scriptures and traditions. They can play an important role in helping the nation avoid a culture war over the content of education. Parents will not subject their children to curriculum and policies that run counter to their own expectations of schools and their deeply held religious beliefs.
Three principles at the core of Tamim Academies are relevant to finding a better path forward for American schools. First, as Tamim’s executive director Holly Cohen says: “Tamim’s curriculum contemplates the whole child. It weaves Judaic and general content together with the requisite skills in an environment that embraces the challenge of educating for social-emotional and spiritual growth. Life skills sourced in Jewish tradition are aligned with Common Core standards.” The language Cohen uses is intentional. This particular network is focused on teaching the tenets, history, and practices of the Jewish faith alongside secular subjects. Though steeped in tradition, these schools are also aligned with progressive pedagogy, emphasizing the whole child and a child-centered approach to teaching and learning.
Second, Tamim schools, like other private and religious schools as well as charter schools, are schools of choice. No one has to send his child to them. Parents examine the values that the school is grounded in and make their selection. Tamim is open to all Jewish families in the communities they serve, but they will serve only a small portion for the foreseeable future. Like all other groups, most Jewish families send their children to traditional public schools.
Third, Tamim has adopted the network model so prevalent in the charter school sector and in some enlightened public school districts. In such schools, the planning of curriculum and instruction is not left to individual teachers or principals but to the Tamim network headquarters, which designs and maintains all teaching materials, as well as leading staff recruitment, training, and support efforts. Teachers are responsible for teaching and do not have free rein to introduce material that goes against Tamim’s mission or values.
In the past school year, Tamim’s network has operated six elementary schools in Jewish communities in six U.S. cities, as well as one school in Canada. This September, five more will open, including another in Canada, and more schools are planned. As private religious schools, the Tamim schools charge tuition, which is undoubtedly a challenge for many families. Recent rulings by the Supreme Court, however, hold open the possibility for greater public financial support for religious schools, a trend that has been growing slowly, state by state, in recent years. Tamim, of course, will have to decide if participation in such programs is consistent with its mission. But allowing parents more choice when it comes to their children’s education can go a long way to alleviating the current destructive tensions over the content and conduct of schooling. Choice programs that foster pluralism should be open to Tamim and to religious schools of all traditions.