Jewish Group Lobbies for Taxpayer Money to Fund Religious Schools

A prominent Jewish group called the Orthodox Union (OU) has announced at its annual conference that it will lobby the state of New York to increase public funding for Jewish day schools and yeshivot – even though this raises some serious constitutional concerns.

According to the Jewish Daily Forward, OU’s executive vice president, Allen Fagin, cited the financial burden imposed by private school tuition as a reason for the move.

“We all recognize that the real solution to the tuition crisis lies in using our political power and our advocacy efforts to increase state and local government funding for yeshivot and day schools,” Fagin said in a conference speech. “Their tuition bill is a burden on families and communities that has reached the breaking point.”

He added, “Our goal is to transform the tuition landscape: to generate sufficient government funding for yeshivot and day schools to lower tuition costs in a meaningful way.”

According to Fagin, the OU intends to launch what the Forward characterizes as “a multimillion dollar advocacy campaign” to advance their agenda. They’ve also retained a political strategist.  

The Forward notes that Jewish schools already receive some state funds, primarily for technology costs and mandatory attendance-taking. The First Amendment, however, forbids the state from directly funding religious education. That prohibition doesn’t appear to concern Fagin. 

“It [the campaign] will require us to stop being timid,” he said. “We pay our taxes, and our kids are also entitled not to be left behind.”

That statement, of course, is only half-true: Fagin’s constituents do pay their taxes, and their children are indeed entitled to an education. But that’s exactly what public schools are for. OU’s campaign relies on the same faulty logic we’ve seen from advocates of voucher programs: Because parents pay taxes, they should be able to ask every other taxpayer in the state to subsidize their child’s religious education. It’s a clear constitutional violation.

But the burden OU’s campaign would impose on non-Orthodox families doesn’t rate much of a mention in Fagin’s speech – or on OU’s website. In a blog, Maury Litwack, director of state political affairs for OU’s advocacy branch, encouraged Jewish schools to seek government funding instead of private funding as a means to resolve budget crises.

“The legislative will exists, and the government has proven to be an effective source of funding to Jewish education,” Litwack wrote. “The Jewish day school world must treat government funding as more than just a debate over constitutionality and the potential for big funding.”

He also positively cited voucher programs and tuition tax credit programs in other states for funding Jewish schools.

But members of the Orthodox community don’t always rely on voucher programs to channel public funds to religious schools. In November, The New York Times reported that Orthodox members of the East Ramapo Central School District (also in New York) allocated a significant portion of the school budget to local yeshivot, forcing public schools to cut programs and eliminate 245 teaching positions. The situation is so dire that a special monitor has recommended that the state appoint fiscal oversight for the district in order to ensure that public schools are properly funded.

Public schools in Lakewood, N.J., are facing a similar crisis. Funding for Orthodox day schools has increased at the expense of public school budgets. Although some of these practices are currently legal—like funding for transportation to and from private religious schools—there’s no question that public school families are already fronting the costs of Orthodox Jewish education in more than one state.

That’s exactly the sort of situation the First Amendment is designed to prevent. It’s unconscionable (and exceptionally brazen) for OU to demand that further funds be siphoned away from public schools intended to serve entire communities in order to promote their private religious agenda. If Orthodox parents want to place their children in religious schools, that’s their right. And it’s their responsibility to pay for it.

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