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Op-Ed: ADL must reassess opposition to gov’t support for parochial schools

NEW YORK (JTA) – Jewish organizations have a lot of clout in this country, in no small part thanks to groups like the Anti-Defamation League. That’s partly why I found ADL National Director Abraham Foxman’s recent call in a JTA Op-Ed for a five-year, $2.5 billion campaign to support Jewish day schools in the United States so intriguing.

The average cost to operate our existing schools at current capacity will be $15 billion over five years, according to the Avi Chai Foundation, which specializes in Jewish education. Against this backdrop, Foxman’s ambitious five year, $500-million-per-year solution is incremental and temporary.

As a community, we will never have enough money on our own to cover day school and yeshiva costs over the long term. To truly cope with the indispensable and unsustainable imperative of American Jewish education, we need to pursue substantial government funds. Despite spending an estimated $3 billion a year on direct education costs, Jewish organizations together spend barely $1 million annually on lobbying for our education agenda – one-third of one-tenth of 1 percent. We’ll need much more than that if we are to advance an order of magnitude in government assistance.

While Foxman has few equals in his passion and ability to raise millions of dollars for Jewish advocacy, the most significant contribution to day-school sustainability – rather than funding a portion of current school costs – would be for ADL to reconsider its longstanding opposition to any form of government offsets or support to parochial schools.

ADL has paved the way for Jews and other minorities to succeed in America, partly by fighting to uphold separation of church and state. If the post-20th century Jewish future depends on sustaining Jewish education, rather than trailblazing our access to public schools, can’t we afford to reexamine whether some public support for private education, including in parochial schools, might be compatible with the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution?

The organized Jewish community has begun to reassess old church-state and public-school orthodoxies.

Beyond providing and facilitating direct support to day schools, Jewish federations are directing their efforts to helping access existing government programs. In New York, for example, the UJA-Federation of New York recently established a day school advocacy initiative. The Orthodox Union has hired a host of new political affairs directors to lobby state legislators in places like New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas and Louisiana to consider sending more state money to parochial schools. The national umbrella for Jewish advocacy agencies, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, has committed to updating its existing policy guidelines regarding tax credits and other forms of support for parochial schools.

In a few states, Jewish day schools already are benefiting from scholarship tax credits. Since a percentage of donations to scholarship funds, including for students in parochial schools, already can be deducted from federal and state taxes, expanding the provision to a full dollar-for-dollar tax credit is not breaking new constitutional ground.

Through Pennsylvania’s modest Educational Investment Tax Credit program, the Philadelphia federation was able to raise an additional $1 million-plus for day-school scholarships in the past year alone.

Reasonable people can disagree over the merits of strategies, but in key respects the constitutional questions have been resolved. The challenge now is to catch up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the ultimate arbiter of what is and is not constitutional. Just last fall, the court ruled that taxpayers lack standing to challenge a scholarship tax credit program in Arizona, even though parochial schools would benefit, since “contributions result from the decisions of private taxpayers regarding their own funds.” In other words, the government is not making any decision “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The court’s decision was not so surprising, since in 2002 it upheld direct parental vouchers on much the same grounds.

If the ADL is prepared to take leadership on this cause, our communal advocacy agenda could do for Jewish education what it already has done for Israel and for combating anti-Semitism. Judging from the Supreme Court, we have some catching up to do. Judging from the financial crisis within our community, there is no time to waste.

(Shai Franklin is executive director of TEACH-NYS, the Educational Alliance for Children in New York State.)

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