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Quality schools for all must be a top priority

Howie Beigelman is the deputy director of public policy for the New York-based Orthodox Union, an advocacy and support group for the Jewish community

Howie Beigelman

is the deputy director of public policy for the New York-based Orthodox Union, an advocacy and support group for the Jewish community

Education in America is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. While we can respectfully debate the solutions, we should all agree on one thing: Every child deserves the opportunity to attend a great school.

The Orthodox Union is ready to advocate for that reality through school choice and reform that increases access to quality education options for all Pennsylvania students.

It's no surprise that the Orthodox Union is committed to quality education, or that we staunchly support reform efforts. The Jewish people risked much throughout history for education, even establishing schools under the watchful eyes of Nazi storm troopers and Communist secret police. As Sir Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi, said in his maiden speech to the House of Lords: "To defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilization you need schools."

Better Pennsylvania schools will come about by increasing and expanding the earned-income tax credit program that has benefited thousands of students across the commonwealth and by enacting opportunity scholarships, now before the Senate. What food stamps are to nutrition, Section 8 to housing, and Head Start to pre-K, the scholarships would be to K-12 education: providing needed funds to help those in need.

Other options include increasing aid to students in all schools - for books, technology, special services, transportation - so all children are in the best environment for them. And it may mean increasing the number of charter schools.

What we cannot - may not - do is nothing. Today we are not providing every student the chance at a great education. That's more than a pity. It's a shame.

The situation in West Philadelphia is a perfect illustration of why we need to give all families more options. As part of a visit organized by Students First for religious leaders, we were able to see firsthand three different high schools and better understand how each provides for families in the community.

Our tour encompassed just 15 blocks, with stops at a parochial, a traditional public, and a public charter school: West Philadelphia Catholic, West Philadelphia High, and Boys' Latin.

After such a tour one notices, first, that the usual bogeymen of urban education - bad teachers and a lack of resources - were nowhere to be found.

Teachers in every classroom at all three schools were working hard and putting their resources to good use. Each of the schools had some of the latest in educational technology needed to help students gain the skills they'll need to compete for 21st-century jobs, such as smart boards and laptops. West Philly High even had a state-of-the-art U.S. Air Force flight simulator for its Junior ROTC program.

Yet, the learning environments at these three schools seemed so different. "Every man is the architect of his own future" is the motto of Boys' Latin. The students who attend seem to take it to heart; there's a distinct camaraderie among the students and a palpable respect for the teachers. The educators and administrators - and the students themselves - have high expectations.

Staff and students had a similarly optimistic outlook at West Philly Catholic, where each year about 95 percent of graduating students pursue some higher education.

The atmosphere at West Philly High, on the other hand, was less hopeful. Teachers keep their doors locked during class periods, and violence has occurred on the campus.

The three schools may be within walking distance of one another and serve families from the same community, but they might as well be worlds apart. As we know, West Catholic must charge tuition and Boys' Latin has a limited enrollment, about one-half the size of West Philadelphia High. So despite living in a community with multiple school options, most students have access only to West Philadelphia.

One mother and father we met that day described the challenges they face and the sacrifices they made trying to find safe, quality schools for their children, including busing them across the city. Parents shouldn't have to struggle so hard to find good schools for their children.

We will all be held to account when the success or failure of our actions or inaction becomes clear in a generation. Policymakers, educators, parents, and all concerned citizens must partner to ensure that a child's education no longer depends on his or her zip code, and certainly that it doesn't differ vastly within just 15 blocks.