Most polls ranking campaign issues place aid to education near the top of voter concerns. And judging by a series of congressional votes, most Americans don’t seem to mind if Jewish schools get government funding, as well. Nevertheless, a Senate vote earlier this month, which would free up money for parents with children in day schools as well as public schools, has ignited a fierce debate in the Jewish community over whether this was a necessary gift or a Trojan horse.
The bill — sponsored by Senators Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) and Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), which easily passed 61-47 — permits parents to invest up to $2000 in a tax-free IRA account each year after the birth of a child. Middle-income taxpayers eligible for the $500 child
tax credit could contribute up to $2500 annually.
Parents could withdraw money invested in that IRA for primary, secondary or college education expenses including tuition, activity fees, supplies, tutoring or transportation costs, including expenses related to religious day schools.
The Orthodox Union, an Orthodox umbrella group, applauded the bill, as did the Republican Jewish Coalition.
But the bill was opposed by, among others, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
Opposition comes with responsibility, said Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jewish Communal Affairs Department.
“If the Jewish community is so rock solid in opposition to government aid, it should rightfully be challenged as to what our communal priorities actually are,” Bayme said. “Jewish education must move to the top of the Jewish communal agenda.”
An AJCommittee statement, asserting that “A literate Jew is simply far more likely to become a committed Jew,” called for a communal endowment fund that will “insure the principle of affordability … without recourse to government assistance.”
Nathan Diament, director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs, pointed out that “America already has tax-free education savings accounts for college education expenses and we all realize that the early years of education are where the foundation for a better life is built.”
Diament expects that the bill would pass the House but will be vetoed by President Clinton. The administration is supporting a “college opportunity tax cut” that would offer a $10,000 tax credit to parents for tuition and other fees, even at private colleges under religious auspices. Nevertheless, the administration has drawn the line at tax breaks for private schools on the elementary or high school level.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a national umbrella group, recently adapted a resolution stating that public funding should only go to public schools.
But funding Jewish day schools exclusively with private money is not realistic, Diament said.
“The Jewish community hasn’t shown it can galvanize the resources,” he added.
Diament explained that the Orthodox are pretty much alone on this because the rest of the organized Jewish community has “an almost blind devotion to some ephemeral vision of what public schools are in this country and almost a knee-jerk attitude toward anything that might remotely benefit parochial education as being unconstitutional,” even if the Senate doesn’t seem to think so.
The AJC’s Bayme, who is Orthodox, explained that his own opposition rested more on the idea that “government funding, however indirect, opens the door to making distinctive Jewish messages impossible. Judaism rests upon articulating messages that are often politically incorrect. As long as we fund our own system, we can teach whatever we want. If the taxpayer starts footing the bill, there’s no reason why all the regulations that effect [public] education will not be suddenly brought to bear on Jewish education.
“It opens the door to every possible lobby to come down the pike and say ‘We don’t like what you’re teaching,’ even though this is what Judaism us teaching. Take, for example, homosexuality. Jewish day schools articulate very distinctive messages on homosexuality. You want these schools to be free to teach those messages.”
Meanwhile, the ADL has made the denial of government aid to Jewish education a priority on the state level, as well. In Connecticut, for example, Robert Leikand, director of the ADL’s regional office, told state legislators that one of the ADL’s legislative priorities is the fight against tuition tax credits.
Steven Freeman, ADL’s national director of legal affairs, explained that opposition to government aid for day schools “comes out of our concern for infringement against the separation of church and state.”
Rabbi Irving Kula, president of CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, is opposed to government aid but points out that “We have more money than anyone ever imagined. We decided Israel was important and we raised billions of dollars to support Israel. Now our issue is Jewish education — if we really believe in it.”
Mimi Alperin, chair of AJCommittee’s Jewish Communal Affairs Commission, cited a report that Jewish federations currently allocate only 4.5 percent of their philanthropy to day schools.
Rabbi Kula said, “If we’re going to be against government aid for legitimate constitutional or civic reasons, then we have to go out and raise every dollar we can for day schools, or let’s be more honest and admit that we absolutely oppose day schools. I would love for the ADL to say that we fight this 100 percent, but we’re also going to solicit” board members of organizations that oppose government aid “to make a significant gift to some day school this year. Then I know that the opposition is coming out of a position of positive principle.”