School Choice, the Government, And You

As Jews, we assume a myriad of financial obligations in order to ensure that we live in accordance with the tenets of our faith. We give generously to our shuls and make charitable donations to various organizations that service the Jewish community. But one of the biggest investments we make is in our children’s future, as we enroll them in one of the many quality yeshivos that our community boasts.

It is no secret that the cost of yeshivah tuition is of great concern to numerous parents in our community. It is often the subject of conversation throughout our community and it is on the minds of every family that has children in yeshivah.

There have been extensive discussions and debates over the years about seeking ways to alleviate the financial burden that is borne by tuition-paying parents. Much of the conversation has focused on the role of government in the business of educating our children. It is an age-old question: should the government play a part in assisting parents of private and religious school students? More importantly, is the government permitted to do so?

It is not every day that a courthouse in Middle America takes center stage in the school choice movement. But on March 26, 2013, the justices of the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld the state’s progressive voucher program.

The court’s decision rebuffed a 2011 challenge to Indiana’s voucher program that had been brought by the Indiana State Teachers Association. The plaintiffs in the case questioned the constitutionality of the voucher program and charged that it utilized public funds in order to sponsor religious education.

In the court’s decision, Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote that the voucher program was not violative of the constitution because the state monies “do not directly benefit religious schools but rather directly benefit lower-income families with school children.”

This was a monumental decision, in that it provided the State of Indiana with the legal justification necessary to continue its voucher program, which is one of the most ambitious in the United States. Unlike voucher programs in other states that focus primarily on lower-income families, the Indiana program, which is much more comprehensive, allows parents with an annual household income of up to $64,000 for a family of four to participate.

By providing lower- and middle-income families with the necessary funds to cover tuition costs, the Indiana voucher program enables them to enroll their children in private schools, as opposed to having to send them to public schools.

Since Indiana established its voucher program in 2011, approximately 9,000 families have benefited from the program, most of whom chose to educate their children in private schools.

The decision to uphold Indiana’s voucher program is somewhat consistent with the progress that recently has been made on the school choice issue across the nation.

There are a number of states that either presently have, or are considering the implementation of, tax-credit or voucher programs that benefit parents of private school students, including Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Arizona.

Closer to home, Governor Christie has been supportive of creating a voucher program in New Jersey by allocating state funds in order to enable lower-income families to send their children to private school, if they so choose. In addition, there is a bill pending before the New Jersey State Legislature that would expand the current law in order to permit special needs students to be assigned by their respective school districts to a private religious school, such as a yeshivah.

In New York, Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature recently passed a budget that includes a $14 million increase in funding for non-public schools. That includes a more than 30% increase in funding for the Comprehensive Attendance Policy and a boost in state funding for the Mandated Services Reimbursement.

With momentum in the school choice arena perhaps shifting a bit in favor of private school parents, now is the time for our community to become further engaged in the process.

Let us not forget for a moment that powerful teachers’ unions, which typically oppose the utilization of any state funds that would benefit non-public schools in any way, wield a tremendous amount of power in Albany and Trenton and enjoy longstanding relationships with many of New York and New Jersey’s state legislators. Relief for private school parents is not just going to fall into our laps. In order to effectuate change and bring about the aid that we as private school parents need and deserve, we must stand up and make our voices heard.

For example, both the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs and Agudath Israel of America have been working diligently to maintain a strong presence in New York and New Jersey’s state legislatures, where the critical choices concerning the allocation of state funds for education are made. There has been a concerted effort to raise awareness in the Orthodox community about the legislative process as it relates to relief for tuition-paying parents and to develop solid relationships with state lawmakers who play a pivotal role in the legislative decision-making process.

Every member of our community that has children or grandchildren in yeshivah should get involved. Every one of us who has ever groused about the cost of tuition ought to find out how they can be of assistance with these advocacy efforts.

The Indiana Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the state’s voucher program was a huge victory for school choice advocates and a reminder that there are indeed legal and constitutional ways for government to provide aid to private school parents. However, we would be naïve to expect that the government will help yeshivah parents if we do not actively ask and advocate for their assistance.


 

N. Aaron Troodler is an attorney and a principal of Paul Revere Public Relations, a public relations and political consulting firm.