“Jewish Groups Rethinking School Vouchers, Tax Credits” by Shira Schoenberg

Reference: Baltimore Jewish Times

April 18, 2012

When the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized school vouchers in 2002, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs called it “a devastating blow to one of the foundations of our democracy”: the separation of church and state. Four years earlier, JCPA had conducted a yearlong study that affirmed its opposition to vouchers.

But at JCPA’s annual conference next month, the organization will reconsider vouchers, tax credits and other public funding for Jewish day schools. Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel for JCPA, said the reexamination stems from a meeting with Jewish leaders from around the country.

“There was keen interest among a very broad range of leadership to take a fresh look at the issue,” Felson told JTA.

As day school tuition costs are rising, a growing number of Jewish organizations are rethinking their opposition to public support for religious schools. Jewish federations are increasing efforts to obtain state money for things like technology and textbooks, while some Jewish groups are supporting state programs that give tax credits for donations to private schools. The Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans recently became the first in the country to endorse private school vouchers. Even the American Jewish Committee—long a bastion of opposition to public funding for private schools—is open to rethinking its position.

But a sea change in Jewish opinion will not come easily; many Jews still oppose public funding of religious schools. Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League are worried about church-state separation, the impact of government regulation on institutions that receive public money and the harm to public education.

“If you’re creating a two-tiered system of education, does that undermine the system of public education, if we’re essentially balkanizing our schools?” asked David Barkey, religious freedom counsel for the ADL.

Several factors have contributed to the renewed push for public funding. One is the growing realization in the community that Jewish education is vital to Jewish identity and involvement, says Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation in North America. More non-Orthodox families are sending children to Jewish day schools.

Simultaneously, the high cost of day school tuition is hurting families and schools. Day school enrollment saw a 3 percent drop in 2009-10, and approximately a dozen schools closed in 2011, according to the Avi Chai Foundation.

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