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 educational 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.
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, 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 in a 2000 ruling, upheld Cleveland's school voucher program as constitutional.
The liberal camp has also, essentially, lost the argument about the "diversion" of funds. Democrats, the traditional political champions of public schools, are deviating from longstanding orthodoxy by strongly backing charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately administered. Inner-city mayors and reform-driven governors are denouncing the social injustice of low-income children trapped in failing public schools. The debate line is no longer over whether to support "school choice" but simply how expansive that choice will be.
That leaves the question of necessity. Given the economy of the past five years, America's Jewish day schools desperately require more support — and the community is unable 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. Annual scholarship awards are estimated at more than $500 million, with such requests showing no slowdown.
One notable sign this year of the shifting debate was the recent enactment in Louisiana of a new school voucher law, with the explicit endorsement of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans. And the JCRCs of Baltimore and Greater Washington endorsed legislation to create a Maryland state tax credit for contributions to school scholarship funds. Federation support for analogous public support programs already exists in Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona.
As we approach Shavuot, which celebrates our receiving the Torah, we are reminded 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.
The permissibility and necessity of state support to make our school system viable are clear.
Nathan J. Diament is the executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.