Joshua ben Gamla and Public Education

This year, our AC Wednesday night Talmud class is studying an excellent chapter (Bava Batra, Chap. 2) about responsible use of land, environmental hazards and zoning — the rules which enable us to be good and safe neighbors.
(If you have never come to our class, please join us! We meet Wednesday at 7pm, followed by Maariv prayers, if we have a minyan. Those with strong Hebrew and those without can both participate easily through the very useful Artscroll edition of the Talmud, Bava Batra vol. 1.)
This chapter includes a famous and excellent tale [Bava Batra 21a] that resonates strongly with some questions before us as Americans: the matter of public education.
A figure of Second Temple times – some sources hold him as Kohel Gadol/High Priest – Joshua ben Gamla is reported to have preserved knowledge of the Torah among the Jewish people. (Full disclosure: I lived on Ben Gamla Street in Katamon, Jerusalem, back in 1989. Happy memories. Oleander bushes beneath my window.)
Says the Gemara, in ancient times, those with literate parents taught them Torah [“And you shall teach your children”]. But those with no parents had no education. The Sages tried to ameliorate this by setting up public academies in the capital, Jerusalem [“For from Zion shall go forth Torah”]. But only those who could afford the tuition and could make the journey would come. Later, the Sages set up regional academies for teenagers, but not every 16 year-old was capable of beginning learning.
At last, Joshua ben Gamla saw to it that each town and city had its own public academy for each 6 or 7 year-old. [At least the boys. Barukh HaShem, we live in an egalitarian age.] May he be remembered for the good, Joshua ben Gamla, enabled people rich and poor, orphaned and those of grand families, those living in city-centers and those on the periphery, to study and to grow wise.
We Americans face some of the same questions going forward: how do we preserve public education for the many, not only the few? Is public education going to become an engine for private profit, as some sectors of the charter school movement appear?
Personally, I do not agree with the wholesale critique of charter schools. I know individuals – even within our community – who work in this field for the very best of public motives. And personally – as a parent who has chosen private education for my kids – I think the issue of “school choice” for the less affluent is real, not merely an anti-union scheme.
But it is also true that we need Joshua ben Gamla’s innovations and commitments: Culture and civics will be forgotten among society unless we ensure that those with familial advantages and those without can learn, grow and thrive.