A Tale of Two States and Two Countries

Two similar private-school voucher programs made headlines on the same day last week.

On Thursday, the New Hampshire State Supreme Court left intact a law that creates a business education tax credit to fund scholarships to private schools.

On the same day, Florida’s teacher union, with other groups, filed a lawsuit aimed at ending one of America’s largest private-school voucher programs. Like in New Hampshire, the Florida program allows businesses to get credits on their state tax bills if they donate to an organization that distributes private-school vouchers to children in low-income families.

A lawyer representing the Florida Education Association told the Associated Press that many people were willing to accept the program when it was an “experiment,” but its continued expansion — it now serves 60,000 students — had prompted groups to act.

In other words, while the teacher’s union and its supporters can tolerate a state law that would give a few thousand low-income children the opportunity to thrive in a private school setting, when too many students get involved they draw the line.

The plaintiffs in the case are arguing that the program drains money from public schools and the children who attend them.

Yet no tax dollars earmarked for public schools are paying for these vouchers. The concept, neither new nor original, works much the same way charitable tax deductions do.

In their legal brief, the teachers union explained why they think this program diverts funds from public schools: Since the schools receive funding on a per-pupil basis, for each child helped to attend a private school the public school district will get less governmental funding.

This line of reasoning fails to take into consideration that the reason schools are granted funds on a per-pupil basis is because smaller schools have fewer expenses. To call this a diversion of funds is disingenuous at best.

The voucher program notwithstanding, there is no doubt that public schools have a huge financial advantage over private schools, and there is a long way to go before the playing field is leveled.

Among the taxpayers whose hard-earned money helps underwrite public school education, is a significant number who send their children to private schools. Voucher programs merely introduce a rather limited element of fairness into the equation.

By going to court to express their fears about the success of the voucher program, the teacher’s union and its supporters are underscoring how little trust they have in the ability of their own public schools to attract and keep students.  

We urge the Florida court to emulate New Hampshire and reject this suit, filed by groups who put their own narrow interests before the needs of children.

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While some who battle voucher programs do so out of concern for the solvency of public schools, for others it is part of a larger battle against religious rights.

It is telling that in their legal brief, the plaintiffs repeatedly stressed that the majority of Florida private schools receiving the vouchers are affiliated with a religious entity, and that religion is taught as part of the school curriculum.

In fact, one of the plaintiffs in the case is a Jewish clergyman who “believes that use of tax funds to support any religious faith, whether another’s or his own, corrodes and debases religion.” (This clergyman serves as the leader of a Temple that openly welcomes interfaith couples, and rejects the basic tenets of halachah.)

But what of the right of religious parents to educate their children in their own moral values?

In America, a country in which the separation of State and Religion is enshrined in the Constitution, the battle lines are about school vouchers and various issues of religious liberties. Across the ocean in England, a country which still has an official state religion, the ongoing debate is about this very separation.

The Torah community in England supports the status quo there, as they feel that separation of state and religion would be harmful to the country’s overall moral values, and that the current system is conducive to their needs.

In the United States, the overwhelming majority of irreligious Jews send their children to public school, and as a result, sky-rocketing rates of intermarriage have taken a devastating toll on Jewish continuity.

In contrast, as one prominent London askan points out, in England over 50 percent of Jewish children attend government-funded Jewish schools. Even though many of these schools are not based on Torah values, this helps ensure some sort of connection with Judaism; it helps convince students at the very least not to marry “out” R”l, but to consider only another Jew as a marriage partner. Some of these students actually go on to become frum.

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It is our hope that the voucher program will spread as it deserves to, for the better education of all the children of this great country.