A series of proposals to slash Jewish day school tuition in suburban New York by using the public school system is igniting a debate on the cost of Jewish education. The measures also are drawing criticism from observers who say they would violate the Constitution on church-state grounds.
The proposals are being promoted by two Orthodox men in Lawrence, N.Y., Jonathan Isler and Kenny Gluck, who say they are responding to the high cost of Jewish day school tuition. Annual tuition at area Jewish schools tends to be in excess of $5,000 per student, and is often more than $10,000.
“Financially, when it comes down to it,” Gluck said, “instead of $40,000 a year, [my bill] could be $9,000.”
Their initial plan simply called for a small number of Orthodox students to enroll in public schools and then rent space after hours, when they would receive religious instruction from privately hired teachers.
According to Isler and Gluck, however, after their plan gained some publicity in local newspapers, they received enough interested responses to pursue a pair of bolder plans that would accommodate hundreds of students, while also keeping Orthodox students separate from non-Jewish and non-Orthodox students.
One of the additional options is to have students study Jewish topics
for half of the day at their private schools, and then be bused to the public schools for the remainder of the day’s instruction in a special track. The other proposal is to have private Jewish schools instruct students in religious studies for the first half of the day, and then bring in public school teachers to provide secular instruction during the second half of the day.
Isler and Gluck are pushing their proposals as Jewish communities around the country debate the relative merits of the current day school system and struggle to keep costs down. In response to the proposal, the Orthodox Union announced in a letter to the Long Island Jewish Star that it was “convening a major conference…to address the problem and to develop a comprehensive plan.” The proposals also come only two months after a school board election in Lawrence that saw many in the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities on opposite sides of a budget debate.
Liberal and conservative legal activists said that none of the programs was likely to withstand a legal challenge under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause or New York’s state constitution, which contains an amendment specifically disallowing certain public funding of education in religious schools.
“The package is an impermissible government support for religion,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said the plans were unlikely to survive a legal challenge. “I don’t know that I would support it, even though I’m a supporter of tax credits and vouchers,” Stern said. “I don’t think these, in my view, make sense from a public policy point of view.”
Marc Stern, the top lawyer at the American Jewish Congress, said two of the proposals — having religious instruction provided after hours at public schools, or having public school teachers provide secular education at private schools — “are clearly unconstitutional in New York.” Stern noted that the New York State constitution’s strictures regarding the funding of religious schools were ratified in order to head off similar efforts by Catholics in the late 19th century.
As for setting up a special public school track, Stern said that the proposal could only pass legal muster “if it were truly open to all students in Lawrence, in practice as well as in theory.”
If organizers were able to develop a legally workable plan, they’ll likely receive the support of Lawrence’s public school system, according to the district’s superintendent, John Fitzsimmons. Assuming the plans were deemed constitutional, Fitzsimmons said the district would probably only object to the one calling for public school teachers to spend a half-day in Jewish schools.
But all of the proposals are facing a great deal of opposition from members of the Orthodox community, with many arguing that any initiative involving the mixing of Jewish and non-Jewish students would contribute to assimilation and hamper religious instruction.
Rabbi David Leibtag, educational director of the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway — the school most likely to be targeted by organizers — said the proposals underestimate the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to Jewish education.
“Jewish education is not just teaching students in a prescribed amount, it is a general culture,” he said, that should even pervade “general studies.” The answer to soaring tuition, he said, is for people “to come together to say that we will put money into a community chest” to keep Jewish education affordable.