Is Voucher Opposition Eroding?


As the weak economy puts a greater strain on Jewish day schools and the parents who support them, discussion about tapping public revenue to ease the burden is gaining new traction in the community, and some say this could be a landmark year for action on that front.

Next week’s annual conference of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs will feature a panel discussion on the topic, a decade after the council resolved that vouchers — one method of channeling government funds into private schools — are unkosher.

This year, however, the topic will be tax credits, vouchers and lobbying for the maximum benefit for schools under their respective state laws to pay for secular books, food, computer equipment and administrative expenses.

“We had a conversation in October that resulted in a task force that deals with these issues,” said JCPA executive vice president and general counsel Ethan Felson. “We are very amendable to taking a fresh look at the whole range of issues — vouchers, tuition tax credits, all these things.”

State funding for religious schools still faces opposition from organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League who see it as a violation of the constitutional mandate of separation between church and state.

But other members of the JCPA umbrella have taken bold steps in the opposite direction: The federations of Baltimore and Greater Washington each supported a tax credit in Maryland for businesses that contribute to school scholarship funds. And the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans came out in favor of a voucher program in Louisiana.

These developments, as well as recent Supreme Court rulings upholding vouchers, were cited by Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s public policy arm, in a recent op-ed distributed by JTA as signs that 2012 is “ a year in which we see signs of a sea change within the Jewish community over this perennial issue.”

In New York in particular, recent years of aggressive lobbying have led to a child tax credit for all the state’s households, which tuition-aid advocates took as a victory in 2006 after they pushed for tax credits for private school families.

The discussion is ongoing.

“All three people in the room are very interested in helping on those items that are legally possible and economically feasible, as well as the big-ticket items that this is not the right time for,” said Shmuel Lefkowitz, vice president of community services at Agudath Israel of America.

The “three people” to whom he was referring are Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who control the agenda in Albany.

But while publicly funded charter schools have been a reality in New York for more than a decade, and a Brooklyn one that focuses on the Hebrew language opened in 2009, a voucher program handing parents a check to cover private school tuition is considered a pipe dream. That’s because the teachers’ unions, which ardently oppose vouchers, have considerable sway over the majority Democrat state government.

“Aside from some diehard libertarians and think-tank types, vouchers are a non-starter here and the issue only pollutes the pool of conversation,” said one consultant who has lobbied for private school aid. He asked not to be identified because he currently works on a political campaign and didn’t want his views associated with the candidate.

“The big issue is money to tuition-paying parents and there has been a tremendous shift in terms of what is possible and what is doable. The driving force has been the Sephardic community, which took on the state and the sacred issues and things you couldn’t talk about in public and said, ‘Let’s have a quiet conversation.’ You add in the black and Hispanic community, and all of a sudden you have a movement.”

Lefkowitz said vouchers and various forms of tax credits may not be feasible now, but “we should always have these items on the agenda just to make sure they know what we want and need.”

In 2005 Sephardic leaders in Brooklyn, concerned about the prospect of shrinking attendance in local yeshivas, spearheaded Teach-NYS, a group that coalesced with the Catholic Diocese here and the Association of Independent and Private Schools to target legislators with a direct-mail campaign highlighting the issue. Agudah and the Orthodox Union have also been aggressive on the issue, using a 2002 report by then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and an advisory committee that recommended greater funding for non-religious activities and expenses at private schools. Those included funds for computer hardware, previously not provided, and for academic intervention for students who fail state-mandated tests or score poorly.

Recognizing the growing impetus for such aid, UJA-Federation of New York last year hired a lobbyist dedicated specifically to government entitlements and tax exemptions for Jewish schools. Darcy Hirsh, a lawyer who also has a master’s in theology from Harvard Divinity School, recently advocated for private schools to get the same exemption public schools do of a payroll tax for public transportation in 12 districts served by the MTA. She also advocated for inclusion in the state budget of $23 million to pay for mandated services such as attendance-taking at private schools. The MTA exemption will save a total of $8 million for all private schools and affects an estimated 100,000 kids in Jewish schools.

“UJA-Federation has supported day schools for many years,” said Hirsh in an interview Monday, noting federation allocations that aid scholarships and help pay teachers’ insurance. “We realize that there is a greater issue that philanthropy alone can’t solve, and that’s the affordability issue. Schools are struggling to meet rising costs, and we decided that government advocacy was a way to secure additional funds for schools. There was a long discussion that ended in the creation of my position.”

Hirsh, who previously worked at a nonprofit that monitors prison conditions, said a greater presence in Albany by yeshiva day school representatives as well as Catholic leaders has “paved the way for greater accomplishments.”

While UJA-Federation does not support vouchers because “at this time there is no consensus in the Jewish community” on the issue, there are internal discussions on whether tax credits for scholarships would be constitutionally valid, Hirsh said.

But even though UJA-Federation’s position is not a change in policy, Diament in his op-ed said that Hirsh’s hiring at a federation that serves the largest Jewish population in America and has the largest day school system is “a significant sign.”

He noted that day school scholarships nationwide have doubled from five years ago to a total of $500 million, while the total operating costs of all U.S. yeshivas and day schools are now estimated at $2 billion, according to estimates by the Avi Chai Foundation.

Marvin Schick, a senior adviser to Avi Chai, said that while there is “something of a shift” in the broader community’s view on tax credits, it should not be seen as a quick fix.

“We’re not at the point where it will make much of a difference,” he said. “The day school world is in trouble. Enrollment in non-Orthodox schools has gone down over the last three years since the economic crisis. The outlook is very bad because of the charter school movement. More and more people are saying day school is not necessary. So I don’t think a tax credit is going to save the day school world.”

He said average tuition costs have increased by about $1,000 per student per year, and more in some Modern Orthodox yeshivas where “the notion is that you have to have every kind of student activity that a [secular] private school or a public school has.”

At the JCPA Plenum in Detroit, which begins Saturday night, one of the sessions will deal with “the Jewish stake in private and public education, balancing community building with our concern for the separation of church and state,” according to the organization’s website.

The panelists are Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna; Marian Stoltz-Loike, dean of Touro’s Lander College for Women; and Ted Kirsch, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Pennsylvania.

“Within the Jewish community there is a quiet conversation, no one wanting to make enemies or offend,” said the former New York-based consultant. “This needs to be a more public issue.”