WASHINGTON, March 1 (JTA) — Public funding for religious schools, one of the more divisive issues in the Jewish community, is being hotly debated again.
Just two years ago it seemed as if there was a shift toward some flexibility on the issue when the Jewish Council for Public Affairs adapted its strict resolution opposing public funding of religious education.
While the umbrella group of community relations councils and national agencies remained opposed to government funding in general, it granted exceptions where the public funds are used for court-approved, nonsectarian benefits, such as textbooks or computers.
This year, however, after a heated debate at its annual conference, JCPA delegates voted 318-259 to return to the stronger position, making a blanket statement that public funding should go to public schools only — without exception.
“We can’t start subsidizing religious education,” said Sammie Moshenberg, director of Washington operations of the National Council of Jewish Women.
Many delegates said the clause that allowed for court-approved exceptions was a “slippery slope” that could lead to vouchers or government influence in the classroom.
Moshenberg, who during the debate referred to the clause as “a loophole through which you can drive a Mack truck,” believes government neutrality toward religion and the wall that separates church and state are ideals that are too important to alter even slightly.
“We can’t put a little chink in the wall just because it will benefit Jewish children,” she said.
Not wanting to minimize support for Jewish education, NCJW joined together with the Orthodox Union in offering a resolution supporting private funding for private schools that was later adopted.
But the O.U. stands firmly on the other side of the issue of public funding for religious education.
Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs, was surprised by the JCPA vote. Public funding for day schools wouldn’t take away money from public schools, Diament said, but if private schools deny themselves government aid it could have devastating consequences for both types of schools.
“The worst thing for public schools is if the parochial schools shut down, which they’ll do if they have to bear” the additional cost, he said.
Funding Jewish day schools exclusively with private money is not realistic, Diament said. “The Jewish community hasn’t shown it can galvanize the resources.”
In Detroit, the exceptions to the rule of never using public money for private schools had worked well for the past few years, said David Gad-Harf, executive director for the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit. He said the exceptions allowed him to partner more effectively with day school leadership and parents as it clarified the difference between certain types of government funding and vouchers.
Public funding of private schools is particularly important to the Detroit community because vouchers will be on the ballot in Michigan in November.
Gad-Harf is unequivocal in his position that public money should not be spent for educational purposes at private schools, and he does not want money to be taken from the public school system.
But receiving government money for auxiliary services, such as bus transportation, is “not a real diversion of funds,” Gad-Harf said. “That’s a lot different than siphoning off funds through vouchers,” he added.
Raising money only from the private sector is feasible, Gad-Harf said. “If the Jewish community decided to make it a priority, it would work,” he said. The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit recently established a fund for Jewish education and it already has attracted major donors.
Guila Franklin Siegal, JCPA’s associate director for domestic concerns, understands the dilemma faced by local communities.
“The community relations councils continue to oppose vouchers,” she said. “But they’re dealing with day school systems that are sorely underfunded.”
Nevertheless, the compromise is too great for Cathrine Schwartz, Associate Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Springfield, Mass. She does not want any strings attached to public funding and worries that if religious schools accept public money the government may eventually attempt to influence what’s taught in the classroom.
Rather than rely on public money, the Jewish community should step up to its responsibility to fund its schools, Schwartz said.
Schwartz is concerned that while government funds would be used to buy nonreligious items, such as computers, these items could also be used for religious purposes.
“I find it very difficult to believe that computers would only be used for secular studies,” she said.
Also, computers or textbooks are funded by the government frees up money for private schools to spend on religious matters. “In effect, that’s funding religious education,” Schwartz said.
But as evidence of how divided people are over the issue, Schwartz’s delegation, which had sponsored the rollback to the more strict position, split its vote in the end. “We were torn,” Schwartz said.