The Frum Tax: How Religious Americans Pay Extra For Public Schools

David Benkof Contributor
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Last week, Rand Paul unveiled a three-pronged proposal to help Republicans reach African-American voters: criminal justice reform, economic empowerment, and school choice. Each holds promise.

But school choice in particular might appeal to African-Americans beyond the prospect of rescuing minority children from failing schools. School choice also helps rectify a problem that Americans of color have a lot of experience with: discrimination.

Our current public-education system discriminates against a different subset of Americans through what I call the “frum tax.” (Frum is a Yiddish term for “observant” that I’m using here to apply to anyone traditionally religious.)

Here’s how the frum tax works: Currently, if you’re secular and want to educate your children with your own values, it’s free. But if you’re frum, it costs tens of thousands of dollars to do the same thing. That’s discrimination.

A common knee-jerk reaction: “By supporting the public schools, you’re helping ensure an educated society, even if your children don’t benefit directly.” But surely children who learn in religious schools also form part of an educated society.

And no, the public schools are not “values-neutral.” Public schools take strong stances on issues about which Americans differ. A version of American history built around the themes of race, class, and gender is not “neutral.” There are many ways to teach our nation’s history, such as focusing on the growth of capitalism, or on the contributions of great men. Young-Earth creationists — I’m not one — don’t want to pay both for schools that reject their view of the age of the Earth and schools that support it.

It’s not the government’s business to decide which historiographical or cosmological ideas are correct – and to confiscate money from citizens who have the “wrong” views in order to promulgate the “right” ones.

Secular people, too, can hold minority beliefs in a system requiring them to compromise their principles or pay huge fines. In fact, public-school boosters might contemplate the following:

  • A 2012 Tennessee law protects science teachers who present ideas that dissent from the scholarly consensus on issues like evolution and climate change.
  • The Texas School Board has repeatedly rejected increasing Latino history in the curriculum of a state in which four in 10 residents is Hispanic.
  • Sex education is optional in Mississippi, but when taught, it can discuss abstinence only, to the exclusion of information about safe sex and contraception.
  • Republicans on the school board of a district outside Denver have been trying to implement an American history curriculum promoting “patriotism” and “the benefits of the free-enterprise system” while downplaying “civil disorder, social strife, or disregard of the law.”

How would a liberal stuck in a district pushing all of the above feel about subsidizing what she considers an odious curriculum, while having to pay thousands of dollars to shield her kids from that educational agenda?

Well, that’s how frum people feel.

Now, the response of many liberals to such policies is that they’re unconstitutional, or at least wrong. But do they really want to wait for the ACLU to sue and maybe convince a judge to overturn them? Or must they elect a new school board in unfriendly territory?

Surely there’s a system in which all people gets to educate their kids with their own values for the same price. School choice seems to fit that bill.

Three years ago, the school district of Ramapo, New York, elected a school board with a Hasidic majority. Ramapo includes cities such as Monsey and New Square that are heavily populated by Orthodox Jews. Since the state’s educational structure massively discriminates against such voters – taking their money while barely helping their children’s education – the board began to make cuts to security staff, sports teams, AP classes, and more.

The school board has been attacked for its “selfishness” and lack of community-mindedness. But if secular students in the district are now being treated unfairly, the frum majority living there has suffered too – and for a much longer time. Good for the Orthodox voters in the area for embracing America’s founding principle of “No taxation without representation.”

I hope frum people of all faiths will start following the Ramapo model. Join me in voting against any increased taxes for public schools, and in trying to elect school board members who support only the bare minimum spending – until the system stops discriminating against us. And since the idea of a “neutral” public school is a myth, we should pressure elected officials to choose textbooks spreading our beliefs, not those of our ideological opponents.

So sure, we can respond to the frum tax with a district-by-district war over school spending and curricular values – and perhaps we should. But I’d much prefer a system like school choice that lets every parent decide what her child is exposed to in school.

David Benkof is a freelance writer living in St. Louis and a frequent contributor to the Daily Caller. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.