In the world of Jewish education, government money is the Next Big Thing. Orthodox groups like Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union have long pushed for state subsidies to private religious schools. Most non-Orthodox Jewish institutions have been against them, fearing that such policies will erode the church-state barrier and divert funds away from public schools.
Recently, though, the opposition seems to be softening a bit. Some progressive Jews are joining the call for school vouchers, which allow parents to use public education funds to pay private school tuition. Voucher proponents argue that a day school education is the most effective way to raise strongly engaged, literate Jews. Making this educational option financially viable for more Jewish parents is essential to the long-term strength of the American Jewish community.
The political climate around vouchers is changing, too. The newly appointed secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is a passionate advocate of state support for private schools, especially religious schools. President Trump’s full-throated promise to make billions of dollars of funding available to parents to pay for private religious schools is probably far-fetched as a matter of actual policy, but it has energized voucher advocates in statehouses around the country.
For those of us committed to Jewish education—my three children attend a community day school—it is time to look more closely at claims that school vouchers (and their kissing cousins, tax-credit scholarships) are a clear win for our private religious schools. Setting aside for the moment the much bigger public policy questions about whether these programs are good for America’s public schools, are they good for Jewish schools?
They may not be. For starters, government money always comes with strings, and private schools that take vouchers will eventually face increased scrutiny of their admissions policies, curricula, test results and employment practices. There are also administrative costs. A 2015 survey of private school leaders in Florida, Indiana and Louisiana found that the sheer volume of paperwork required was enough to dissuade many schools from participating in voucher or tax-credit scholarship programs. Public funding may also weaken existing philanthropic support for Jewish education. A recent study of Catholic parishes in Milwaukee found that voucher programs boosted school revenue but also substantially reduced church donations.
Admissions policies are one sticking point for Jewish schools. Unlike many other sectarian schools—notably, Catholic schools—Jewish day schools usually limit enrollment to Jewish children, though their definitions vary. However, for both political and legal reasons, any large-scale voucher program will almost certainly require schools to abandon such religious tests for admission. Using public money to fund schools that discriminate on the basis of religion could prove politically unpalatable. As it is, public support for school vouchers is relatively weak and declining—charter schools are a far more popular version of “school choice.” But respondents also tell pollsters that they don’t know much about vouchers. As they learn more, support could fall even further.
In recent years a number of states, including North Carolina and Florida, have quietly passed voucher or tax-credit scholarship schemes that allow participating schools to deny children admission on the basis of religion. So far the discriminatory aspect of these programs has escaped close scrutiny. In large part, this is due to the goodwill that Catholic parochial schools have built up over decades of educating non-Catholic low-income children in urban areas. As vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs rise on the political agenda, though, there could be much more pushback against private religious schools that take government money but exclude children who go to the “wrong” church, or whose parents are unwilling to sign a declaration of specific religious belief. Indeed, the strict anti-LGBTQ policies at some private Christian schools that participate in state voucher programs are already drawing negative attention.
Voucher programs that allow participating schools to discriminate on the basis of religion will also face challenges in court. In a landmark 2002 case, the Supreme Court upheld a pilot voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio that allowed low-income students to use public tuition aid at private religious schools. However, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a conservative, emphasized in his majority opinion that all of the voucher-accepting schools had agreed not to discriminate on the basis of race, religion or ethnic background. This nondiscrimination requirement was key to the court’s finding that the Cleveland parents who participated in the program had a “true private choice” about whether to send their children to a religious school, so the program did not violate the Constitution. State schemes that permit schools to turn away voucher-holding children because of their religion are likely to fail this test.
How should Jewish schools weigh the need for autonomy against the lure of state subsidies? Some day schools, mostly non-Orthodox and in smaller Jewish communities, are already happily educating many children who do not identify as Jewish. Hebrew-language charter schools in cities like New York and Los Angeles straddle the boundary between public school and day school, with majority non-Jewish student bodies and a focus on language and culture rather than religion.
This could be an important opportunity to consider what Jewish education has to offer all American children, not only Jewish ones. Other educators may conclude that the freedom to set their own curriculum and maintain a majority-Jewish environment is essential to success in their long standing core mission—that of educating Jewish children for Jewish life. Regardless, there is no avoiding these difficult questions, and we need to ask them now, before the siren song of “free” money becomes irresistible.
Jenny Diamond Cheng is a lecturer in law at Vanderbilt University Law School.