Since the mid-1950s, the majority view within the Jewish community has opposed government aid to parochial schools on the grounds that it diverts funds from the public schools, breaches the “wall of separation” between religion and state, and runs counter to the communal responsibility to support our own institutions.
In a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions since the 1990s, the constitutional question was clearly settled in favor of state support programs and against the “strict separationists.” The high court approved state-funded special education teachers in parochial schools, state-funded textbooks and technology, and more, culminating in the 2000 ruling upholding Cleveland’s school voucher program as constitutional. Under the program, publicly funded vouchers could be spent on parochial school tuition.
Also, the historically political champions of the traditional public school systems — Democrats — are deviating from longstanding orthodoxy by strongly backing charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately administered (and free from unionized teachers). Inner-city mayors and reform-driven governors are denouncing the social injustice of low-income children trapped in failing public schools and pursuing an array of initiatives to offer opportunity to these children.
Finally, America’s Jewish day schools desperately require more support — and it is not within the community’s ability to provide it alone. Today, Jewish day schools (of all denominations) amount to more than a $2-billion enterprise annually, according to the Avi Chai Foundation. A conservative estimate assesses annual scholarship awards at more than $500 million, nearly twice the amount awarded five years ago.
If the Jewish community is to fund its educational system by itself, we have yet to identify where the funds will come from. The need is clear and present.
In Louisiana, a new and ambitious school voucher program was enacted into law — with the explicit endorsement of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans — making it the first federation in the country to embrace a school voucher proposal. This action in the Bayou State follows on the JCRCs of Baltimore and Greater Washington endorsements of legislation to create a Maryland state tax credit for contributions to school scholarship funds, and active support for analogous public support programs from Jewish federations in Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona, where they are already in place.
Fortunately, the upcoming convention of the JCPA will launch a renewed examination of communal policy on government support for Jewish education. The entity for national and local Jewish organizations last “examined” this topic 15 years ago; those of us who participated then thought the discussion was a sham, with rejection of all forms of state support a foregone conclusion. This time, with the economic landscape and the federations directly participating in state aid programs, we have a hopeful sense that the position adopted will not be reflex-ive and dogmatic, but appropriately sensitive and nuanced.