Reform Jewish Voice of New York State has made a commitment to public education a central piece of its advocacy agenda. The Reform Jewish Movement has been a steadfast supporter of public education, responding to both the mandate that “any city that does not have a school in it shall be cut off [all contact] until they find a teacher for the children” (Hilchot Talmud Torah 2:1) and our understanding that public education is a critical tool for social mobility, providing enhanced opportunities to people of all races, creeds and economic status. As a 2001 Union for Reform Judaism resolution on Public Education states: “Historically, the public schools have been the ladder that American Jews, and so many others, used to climb from poverty to affluence in American life. Today, Jews remain deeply devoted to the public school system; for many North American Jews, public education is the most hallowed of civic virtues.” It is also important to us that a strong public education system honors the separation between church and state.
Opposing the Education Tax Credit
Since 2015, we have been opposing efforts to establish an Education Tax Credit for those who donate to private or religious schools. The Education Tax Credit has been described as a “thinly veiled voucher program” that allows donors to use state funds to support their contributions to private or religious schools. This would leave public schools, many of which are already facing financial strain, with less funding as the state would be using millions of dollars to incentivize donations to non-public schools.
Working for Oversight in East Ramapo
RJV has also worked tirelessly with local partners to bring increased oversight to the East Ramapo School district in Rockland County, NY. The district includes a large Orthodox Haredi community and a large African American and Hispanic immigrant community. The East Ramapo School Board is composed of 70% Haredi members, even though most Haredi children in this school district attend private yeshivas and most African American and Hispanic children attend the public schools. While this arrangement is legal and the members of the School Board appear to have won their elections fairly, the Board’s motives and actions have been called into question. In the last few years, many classes, extracurricular activities and staff have been cut at the local public schools. There are also accusations of the School Board selling public school buildings to yeshivas at below market rates and sending Haredi children to yeshivas using public money by illegally exploiting special education laws.
State-appointed monitors and community advocates, including RJV, have been pushing for strong state oversight over the school board via a monitor who can veto financial decisions made by the school board if they will harm the district. At the end of the 2016 legislative session, the legislature passed and the Governor signed a bill that would empower the State Commissioner of Education to approve or amend the East Ramapo budget and provide money to restore missing programs. While the legislation only last for one year, this hard-fought victory is an important step towards increased oversight.