Are Jewish Views of Education Tax Credits Changing?

Earlier this month, more than seventy rabbis, Jewish organizational executives and academics described as “a highly diverse group of thought leaders from all around the United States,” lent their names to a document billed as a “Statement on Jewish Vitality,” The statement commences with a somber acknowledgement:

“American Jewry now stands at a crossroads. Our choices are stark: we either accept as inevitable the declining numbers of engaged Jews, or we work to expand the community and improve the quality of Jewish life going forward.”

The document then proceeds to describe the contours of the challenge, and presents a set of ‘strategic ideas’ regarded by the signatories as effective counter-measures to declining Jewish engagement.

One of the ideas identified by the group has gained a measure of notoriety. Acknowledging that Jewish day schools are particularly effective at building Jewish social networks, transmitting Jewish content, and targeting peer groups of Jews at critical stages of life, the Jewish leaders tendered the following ‘strategic idea’:

Several states have adopted tax policies that offset day school tuition. The Jewish community should support such efforts and find other ways to make day schools more affordable. (Emphasis in the original.)

The exhortation came as a bombshell to some on the Jewish political left. Writing for The Forward, one of the oldest standing journalistic organs of American progressive Jewish political thought, J.J. Goldberg writes the following:

“The one shocker on the list is a call for ‘the Jewish community’ to support ‘tax policies that offset day school tuition.'”

Mr. Goldberg, a former editor of The Forward, goes on to explain:

“Traditional Jewish liberals view tax breaks for religious schools as a threat to the constitutional guarantee of church-state separation, which in turn safeguards the religious liberty of minorities, including Jews. And yet here it is, in a document endorsed by dozens of prominent figures in the world of Jewish liberalism.”

A leading spokesperson for the American Jewish Left has thus concluded that dozens of prominent Progressive Jewish leaders have now endorsed efforts to enact education tax credit legislation designed to broaden access to private religious schools. If any significant number of those leaders’ followers pay heed, it could signal a sea change in broader Jewish attitudes toward and involvement in school choice advocacy. Three of the leaders, Rabbi Sharon Brous, Rabbi Robert Wexler, and Rabbi David Wolpe, are Los Angeles-based clergy – Rabbi Wexler serves as President of the American Jewish University – who were ranked among the top seven in Newsweek’s/The Daily Beast’s final compilation of America’s Top 50 Rabbis list.

There has long been a schism among American Jews with respect to school voucher and education tax credit legislation, with Orthodox Jews generally being more likely to support such policies, and more religiously moderate and liberal Jews tending to oppose them. Orthodox advocacy groups such as Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union actively endorse such legislation, while more broadly inclusive Jewish social action bodies such as the American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League oppose such arrangements. Jewish federations, broadly inclusive community-based bodies that raise funds to address a variety of needs, have largely sat on the sidelines, though the prominent UJA-Federation of New York recently lobbied in support of a state education tax credit proposal. The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a national umbrella organization dedicated to broadening access to Jewish day school education, appears to be silent on the issue of school vouchers and education tax credits.

Beyond their disproportionate affiliation with the Democratic Party, American Jews have long reserved special esteem for the nation’s public education system, which is widely acknowledged as having played a key role in lifting millions of Jewish immigrants out of poverty. Moreover, the public schools became a source of employment for thousands of Jewish teachers, many of whom were raised in homes in which labor unions were highly venerated. Not surprisingly, Jews have brought prominent leadership to the nation’s teachers unions. Albert Shanker, who played a lead role in founding New York’s United Federation of Teachers, and who would later serve as the near-legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997, was Jewish. So is the AFT’s current president, Randi Weingarten.

As was noted by Mr. Goldberg, most Jews remain highly sensitive to perceived breaches of the wall of separation between church and state, and many view school voucher and education tax credit arrangements as running afoul of First Amendment protections. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions may, however, have begun to soften such views. In the Court’s landmark 2011 ruling in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, which essentially found that tax credits do not entail government expenditures, the majority opinion was authored by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, the same legal mind that furnished the decisive opinion in the recent Obergefell v. Hodges case upholding same-sex marriage.

Whether the Statement on Jewish Vitality‘s call for tax policies that offset Jewish day school tuition will gain traction among ‘rank and file’ Jews and induce changes in the posture of Jewish public policy groups toward school choice legislation remains to be seen. For now, the expression of support for such tax policies from a broadly representative cadre of influential Jewish leaders is noteworthy in its own right. Only time will tell if it proves to be a watershed moment in the history of the school choice movement.

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  1. Ron,

    A wonderful overview. Particularly insightful for those of outside the day-to-day world of Jewish educational thought. I greatly appreciate your balanced analysis and wisdom.

  2. Thank you, Dan!

    Dan Sherman is Principal at St. Madeleine Sophie Catholic School in Bellevue, Washington. A leader in the nation’s private school community, Dan previously served as Executive Director of the Washington Federation of Independent Schools following 15 years of leadership as Principal at St. John Catholic School in Seattle.

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