Advocates for the Orthodox Community Assess Administration’s School Choice Proposal

NEW YORK -

Amid the many hot-button items in the budget proposal recently released by the White House is the first attempt to allocate federal funds to assist parents in paying for private school tuition. Advocates for the Orthodox community labeled it an important step, which, like all proposed budget items, has a long way to go before its real impact can be assessed.

Of the $1.4 billion that the administration has proposed to set aside for “school choice,” only a minor portion, $250 million, is earmarked for programs that would help pay for private education. The vast majority is intended to support initiatives to help empower parents to send children to out-of-district schools, charter schools, and other plans that allow for more selectivity in the realm of public education.

The idea of allotting federal money that could end up in private school coffers is already causing a stir both on Capitol Hill and among many public school advocacy groups.

Rabbi Abba Cohen, director of federal affairs for Agudath Israel of America, told Hamodia that the percentage of how much the administration is asking to set aside should assuage many of their arguments.

“We are used to hearing a narrative that private school vouchers are coming at the expense of public school kids, which is not accurate. I’m not saying the $250 million is insignificant, but it is not cutting very deeply into the budget,” he said.

On the campaign trial, President Trump touted a plan of allotting $20 billion for federal school choice programs. His appointment of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education was seen as a sign of his commitment to the cause.

“We hope it’s a first step,” said Rabbi Cohen, noting the disparity between the plans laid out during campaign season and the present proposal. “I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone in the school choice camp that the president is starting out this way. A lot of people would consider it irresponsible to be too ambitious at this stage of the game, but here is a modest school choice program which mostly benefits public school kids. They’re hoping it will be successful and then take it from there.”

The education package, as all items in the budget, is already being scrutinized by Congress and will be debated and negotiated for months to come, ultimately resulting in a spending allocation that will no doubt be quite different from the one initially proposed by the White House.

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy, said the tentative nature of the allocation made it difficult to assess what its impact would be on the Orthodox community.

“This is an opening bid from the administration,” he told Hamodia. “It’s very meaningful that they have put a significant amount of money into school choice, but there’s a long way to go before we get to implementation.”

Mr. Diament added that sharp criticism voiced by the Democratic members in a recent hearing with Secretary DeVos seemed to portend, as expected, that the funding would be “a partisan issue.” Yet, he was confident that GOP members would insist on preserving the school choice appropriation to some extent.

“Since the president has been so outspoken in favor of school choice programs and the Republicans are on record on the issue as well, I think there’s a very good chance that there will be some money for it in the final budget, but it could look very different from what the president wanted,” he said.

In addition to vocal opposition from Democrats, disunity in the school choice camp as well could further complicate negotiations on the topic. Several prominent charter school organizations have announced that they plan to work with teachers’ unions, the traditional foes of any school choice options, to derail any funding that would go to private schools.

Rabbi Cohen feared that these factors and a general push among Democrats to resist proposals from the Trump administration make the allocation all the more uncertain.

“I think it will be one of the first areas of attack,” he said. “It’s a small amount, but it’s very symbolic to both sides, and the lack of unanimity makes it all the more vulnerable to change.”

Even if significant funds for programs for private school parents are approved by Congress, much would remain to be seen as to what programs would look like. States with school choice initiatives typically work with vouchers or tax credits, but often place limitations that in many cases preclude the Orthodox community from benefiting, such as tagging them for children from high-crime neighborhoods or low-performing schools.

The administration has said on several occasions that its goal is to leave states wide discretion as to how federal school-choice funding should be spent. Rabbi Cohen said that judging from past experiences with Title One and other similar programs that have aided private schools, flexibility has not always been helpful for educational institutions themselves.

“There are obvious advantages to letting states determine what their needs are, but this has not always gone to our benefit. We have encountered a lot of resistance on the state and local level in the past,” he said. Rabbi Cohen said that strong federal mandates that bind districts to using funds to help private school students in a fair and “equitable” manner are crucial to ensuring that the Orthodox community and other non-public school students actually benefit from these appropriations.

“How we are treated differs from state to state, but it’s important for us to be able to go to the federal government and invoke their mandate,” he said. “It’s a string that we need to stay attached.”