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Jewish groups rethink public funding for religious schools
May 1st, 2012
Boston (JTA) — When the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized school vouchers in 2002, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs called it “a devastating blow to one of the foundations of our democracy”: the separation of church and state. Four years earlier, JCPA had conducted a yearlong study that affirmed its opposition to vouchers.
But at JCPA’s annual conference May 5-8, the organization will reconsider vouchers, tax credits, and other public funding for Jewish day schools.
Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel for JCPA, said the reexamination stems from a meeting with Jewish leaders from around the country.
“There was keen interest among a very broad range of leadership to take a fresh look at the issue,” Felson told JTA.
As day school tuition costs rise, more and more Jewish organizations are rethinking opposition to public support for religious schools.
Jewish federations are increasing efforts to obtain state money for technology and textbooks, while some Jewish groups are supporting state programs that give tax credits for donations to private schools.
The Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans recently became the first in the country to endorse private school vouchers. Even the American Jewish Committee — long a bastion of opposition to public funding for private schools — is open to rethinking its position.
But this change will not come easily. Many Jews still oppose public funding of religious schools.
Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League are worried about church-state separation, the effect of government regulation on institutions that receive public money, and the harm to public education.
“If you’re creating a two-tiered system of education, does that undermine the system of public education, if we’re essentially balkanizing our schools?” asked David Barkey, religious freedom counsel for the ADL.
Several factors have contributed to the renewed push for public funding. One is the growing realization in the community that Jewish education is vital to Jewish identity and involvement, said Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation in North America. More non-Orthodox families are sending children to Jewish day schools.
Simultaneously, the high cost of day school tuition is hurting families and schools. Day school enrollment saw a 3 percent drop in 2009-10, and approximately a dozen schools closed in 2011, according to the Avi Chai Foundation.
Legally, a landmark 2002 Supreme Court case over vouchers in Ohio found that vouchers are constitutional under certain conditions. (In some states, amendments to the state constitution prohibit government aid to religious schools.)
Some states — including Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Rhode Island — are experimenting with tax credit scholarship programs. In these, individuals or corporations donate to an organization. The organization funds private school scholarships, and the donor receives a tax credit.
The Orthodox Union, a longtime advocate for public funding of parochial schools, expanded its efforts in the past year with staff in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Louisiana.
The OU helps Jewish groups advocate for public funding of day schools under existing budgets and new programs like tax credits.
“The crisis has galvanized a number of people locally” to increase their lobbying efforts, said Maury Litwack, the OU’s director of political affairs. “A number of organizations … who historically had positions that this troubled us because of church-state, they see there’s such a large grocery list of federal funding, and at a state and local level, it’s difficult to say you’re opposed to everything.”
In New Jersey, for example, Jewish day schools would get approximately $600,000 for technology next year under the governor’s proposed budget. In Florida, Jewish day schools receive about $2 million annually from a tax credit program, according to the OU.
Nationally, the AJC is talking internally about whether to rethink its long history of opposition to tax credits and vouchers, said general counsel Marc Stern.
Historically, Jews have had a strong ideological commitment to the principle that religion should be voluntary, not funded by the compulsory tax system, Stern said.
Before reforms to the Catholic Church in the 1960s, Jews worried about government funding of Catholic schools, whose teachings at the time fostered anti-Semitism, Stern said.
Recently there have been concerns about government regulation that comes with public funding, which could affect, for example, hiring or admissions practices.
However, Stern said, AJC recognizes that the cost of Jewish education is rising, day schools are closing, and public money will be equally available to all religions. Plus, new case law addresses the constitutional issues.
Some local foundations are leading on these issues. The UJA-Federation of New York recently hired a staff member to focus on government support for day schools.
Massachusetts’ Combined Jewish Philanthropies is working on maximizing state money for students with disabilities. CJP is also in preliminary discussions with the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston regarding a potential tax credit program, said CJP President Barry Shrage.
In Louisiana, where Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has been pushing a comprehensive education reform bill, representatives of the federation-affiliated Jewish Community Relations Council, the OU, and a local Jewish day school met with legislators to support vouchers and tax credits.
JCRC Chairman Jonathan Lake said the voucher bill, which recently passed the Louisiana State Legislature, will have little effect on Jewish day schools because of income eligibility criteria and a provision awarding vouchers only to students transferring from failing public schools. But the Jewish community is lobbying to raise the income limit and allow students to use vouchers when they start kindergarten.
But resistance remains. Barkey said the ADL continues to believe it is inappropriate for government to fund religious schools.
“We don’t think the government or taxpayers should have their money spent at religious institutions with which they’re not affiliated or don’t agree with,” Barkey said.