Battle Lines Drawn on Funding for Private, Parochial Schools

The Orthodox Jewish community stands across the divide from most Jewish groups on a method of school financing that also raises the potential for state involvement in religion.

At issue is whether the government should finance private and parochial school education, thus giving parents the choice to pull their children from public schools that already receive government funds.

Parental choice initiatives have struggled onto several state ballots in recent years, and although they have been defeated, the idea is retaining support as several states prepare to consider it.

The Jewish community is split over the issue, which would allow government funds in the form of vouchers to be used to finance private and parochial school education.

If enacted, school voucher proposals would dramatically change the way schools are funded in America, calling for some government funds normally directed to public schools to be given instead to private schools.

“This is an expanding issue — it’s not going to go away,” said Jerome Chanes, co-director for domestic concerns for the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

Indeed, while school voucher proposals have already been defeated in California, Colorado, and Oregon, observers expect the issue to be considered in states including Georgia, Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey in the near future.

WIDE DISCONTENT OVER PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM

California hosted the most recent fight over parental choice, which saw Proposition 174 attract nationwide attention before November voters sent it to defeat.

Jewish groups participated actively in the California race, often facing each other across the battle lines amid arguments over church-state separation and parental choice over which school their children attend.

The school voucher idea was borne out of discontent for America’s public schools, which many believe have deteriorated to the point of ineffectiveness.

Under proposed voucher plans, government money would be allocated in the form of vouchers to parents, who could then choose the private school where they wanted the funds — and their child — to go. The funds would help offset their child’s tuition at that school.

Several mainstream Jewish groups have worked against school vouchers, while the Orthodox community, which often sends its children to private day schools, has solidly backed the idea.

In California, more than 15 major Jewish groups led by the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and Anti-Defamation League formed the Jewish Coalition Against the Voucher, an organization that campaigned heavily for Proposition 174′s defeat.

The coalition joined major teachers’ unions in turning voters against the measure by a 7-3 margin. Member groups hope to spread the anti-voucher wave to the rest of the nation.

On the opposing side, pro-voucher forces including the fervently Orthodox group Agudath Israel recently formed Americans for School Choice, a national organization designed to work with activists in trying to promote school choice proposals.

Orthodox Jewish groups disagree with the rest of the Jewish community on two issues: the effect of vouchers on church-state separation and the Jewish community’s long-standing support of public school education.

On the first issue, groups opposed to school vouchers argue that government financing of private religious institutions violates the First Amendment’s mandated division between church and state.

“Government funding of any religious institution constitutes support of that religion and an entanglement of the government with religion,” said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington representative of the National Council of Jewish Women.

“It is not proper for the government to aid schools of one particular religion, even if it’s ours,” said Sam Rabinove, legal director of the American Jewish Committee.

Groups opposing vouchers believe that government funds bring government regulation, which could seriously limit the religious activity of Jewish day schools.

“We don’t want the government to decide which private schools can receive government funds and which cannot,” said Michael Lieberman, associate director of the Washington office of the ADL.

“Government funds inevitably come without strings at first, but later come regulation and oversight,” said Marc Stern, co-director of legal affairs for AJCongress.

Orthodox groups, who have long sent their children to private schools for Jewish learning not provided in public schools, disagree that a church-state problem exists.

David Zwiebel, general counsel of Agudath Israel, said that because government money in the form of vouchers would go directly to the parent under the voucher system, he sees no First Amendment problem.

“It is constitutionally permissible for the government to provide parents with a voucher” so that they may choose their children’s schools, Zwiebel said.

Zwiebel dismissed government regulation as a worry because religious institutions are already exempt from many federal laws, such as anti-discrimination statutes that allow religious schools to hire only members of their own faith.

Another ground for opposition to school vouchers by mainstream Jewish groups is the traditional Jewish support for public school education.

A school voucher system, opponents argue, will take money and students away from public schools and thus further their decline.

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