WASHINGTON (JTA) — For decades, the American Jewish community has debated the advisability, constitutionality and necessity of government aid to Jewish (and other faiths’) parochial schools. But with the United States still experiencing tough economic challenges, the American Jewish community finds its schools under greater financial stress than ever. This reality, alongside the solidification of court rulings upholding government aid programs and a current of broader education reform, has positioned 2012 to be a year in which we see signs of a sea change within the Jewish community over this perennial issue.
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.
On the other side, the Orthodox and other conservative segments of the community advocated for public sector support for Jewish schools. This admittedly minority camp contended that as a matter of economic fairness, citizens paying taxes that support local school budgets are entitled to some support in return; that First Amendment principles did not bar carefully crafted and religion-neutral state aid programs; and that in the absence of full communal support for our schools, resorting to state support was warranted.
In a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions rendered in the 1990s and 2000s, 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.
The liberal camp has also, essentially, lost the argument about the “diversion” of funds. 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. The debate line is no longer over whether to support “school choice” but simply how expansive that choice will be.
This leaves as the last argument standing the question of necessity, and in the context of the economy of the past five years, 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, and that is nearly twice the amount that was being awarded five years ago. Requests for scholarship showing no signs of abating.
If the Jewish community is going to fund its educational system by itself, we have yet to identify where the funds will come from, let alone the will to make the decisions to secure or re-allocate those funds. The need is clear and present.
And so we get to 2012 and several signs indicating a shift in the debate. One prominent sign is the essay recently published in The Wall Street Journal by Peter Beinart making the “Jewish case” for state funding for Jewish education. While Beinart’s latest book featuring intense criticism of Israel generated a tidal wave of tough responses from Jewish organizational leaders and pundits, Beinart’s Wall Street Journal column received virtually no comment from the community’s liberal stalwarts.
A second notable sign of shift is the recent political debate in Louisiana in which 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.
The UJA-Federation of New York is the federation entity with the largest number of Jewish citizens and day schools within its jurisdiction, so it is a significant sign when it hires a new staffer into its Albany lobbying shop tasked with “day school advocacy,” as it did earlier this year.
Finally, a sign we see down the road is the upcoming convention of the JCPA that will launch a renewed examination of communal policy on the topic of government support for Jewish education. JCPA, the umbrella entity for national and local Jewish organizations throughout the U.S., last “examined” this topic 15 years ago, but those of us who participated in that discussion thought it a sham, with rejection of all forms of state support a foregone conclusion. This time, with the economic landscape at hand and the federation entities directly participating in state aid programs, we have a hopeful sense that the position adopted by the broader community will not be reflexive and dogmatic but appropriately sensitive and nuanced.
As the Jewish calendar has turned from Passover toward Shavuot, we turn our attention from achieving Jewish freedom to understanding Jewish purpose. The fact that our ancestors’ exodus culminated at Sinai is a lesson to us that our central purpose is the transmission of Jewish knowledge and commitment. Today we do that best through Jewish schools, and we must ensure their viability to ensure the next generation. The permissibility and necessity of state support to make our school system viable are clear, and in 2012 we are seeing signs that we might indeed make this prospect a reality.
(Nathan J. Diament is the executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.)