Public funds for private schools get JCRC nod

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) meets with students at Bais Yaakov School for Girls on Dec. 13 to announce a $5 million increase in funding for the state’s Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today program. Photo by Justin Silberman

A local Jewish advocacy organization has softened its long-held position against public funds for private schools.

Last month, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington came out in support of Maryland’s BOOST program, which gives scholarship money to private schools to make education more affordable for low-income families.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) introduced the program last year. Jewish schools set to receive funding include Berman Hebrew Academy, Torah School of Greater Washington, Yeshiva of Greater Washington, Alef Bet Montessori School and Leo Bernstein Jewish Academy of Fine Arts. Among the five institutions, 112 students will receive aid, according to Hogan spokesperson Hannah Marr.

In testimony before the state Department of Education on Jan. 27, the JCRC’s Meredith Weisel said that many students in Montgomery County “have directly benefited [from BOOST] this school year.

“BOOST, now an established program, has proven over the past year to be successful in helping with day school affordability for our families that seek ways to offset tuition costs at a private or parochial school,” she said.

Many Jews have opposed school vouchers for parochial schools because it brings the government into the religious sphere. They are also seen as taking away taxpayer dollars from public schools which serve everyone and giving them to private schools.

BOOST funds do not come from the school budget or from taxpayer dollars, according to Marr. Instead, the money comes from the state’s cigarette restitution fund. Hogan set aside $5 million last year to fund the program. In December he announced at Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Baltimore that he would seek to increase funding over the next three years to $10 million a year.

That’s what the JCRC needed to support BOOST.

“In general, we are fine pursuing government funding for things of secular nature that fund private day schools,” said JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber. “We couldn’t blanketly support an allocation unless it met our criteria.”

In 2011, the JCRC considered backing legislation that would have given tax credits to businesses that made contributions to private and parochial schools. It ultimately did not support the bill. Last year, the JCRC looked at supporting BOOST but ultimately took no position because it wasn’t clear where the funding would come from, Halber said.

BOOST passed the JCRC’s test because it assists families that earn less than $35,000 a year without taking funds away from public education.

Halber said other JCRCs around the country are beginning to open their hearts to private school funding.

“There’s an evolution taking place,” he said. “It’s been a slow but an evolution. Most JCRCs have very strong records of supporting public education, but the day school community over the past few decades has become increasingly part of the diverse fabric. … For us it was a real change, and I think a healthy change.”

Halber added that JCRCs leaders have recognized that day schools constitute a “vital part of our community” and that “an Orthodox child is not going to be successful in a public school environment where their religious needs are not met.”

In San Francisco, Jeremy Russell, director of marketing and communications for the Bay Area’s JCRC, said Maryland’s BOOST program raises concerns.

Russell’s JCRC has a policy dating back to 1998 of not supporting any “school voucher proposals and other methods of funding private school education with public funds” because it would violate the separation of church and state.

BOOST and vouchers are like “apples and oranges,” he said. “However, it does make me wonder — what protections are in place to deter government interference in the day schools? One of the areas covered in our statement is concern that such funding ‘would inevitably lead to substantially greater government interference in parochial schools which could impede instruction in matters of religious faith,’” he said.

While the JCRC of Greater Washington has embraced BOOST, Halber said there are no plans to support any public program that aids private school students beyond those who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“That’s just not going to happen,” he said. “We live in a state that’s very progressive. We live in a state where public education is a third of the state budget. The state is not going to turn around and start giving money to aid the middle class on this.”

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