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Published on May 9, 2017, by in Advocacy Day.

Background

For several years the Governor, legislators and private and parochial school proponents have advocated for an Education Tax Credit (ETC) for taxpayers, including corporations, who donate to scholarship funds for private or religious schools. The Education Tax Credit would direct public funding to private and parochial schools, posing a threat to the separation of church and state and potentially drawing money away from the public-school system.

Education Tax Credit

Tax credits that direct funding to private, religious schools undermine the separation of church and state and constitute poor public policy. The Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis have long opposed attempts to channel public funds to private, parochial schools.

Open and non-discriminatory in their acceptance of students, public schools are a significant unifying factor among the diverse range of ethnic and religious communities in our society. Private, including religious, schools that will benefit from taxpayer funds under policies such as this proposed tax credit are not bound by those same acceptance standards that are a source of strength in our public school system and society.

When state funds are used to reward donors of religious school education, they become an indirect government funding of sectarian institutions. Such actions undermine the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and violate the New York State Constitution, Article XI Section 3 which states: “neither the state or any subdivision thereof, shall use its property or credit or any public money or authorize or permit either to be used directly or indirectly, in aid or maintenance, other than for examination or inspection of any school or institution of learning wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine is taught,…”

Not only do these tax credits imperil the separation of church and state, but they also disproportionately benefit wealthy donors. The tax credit would be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis for a short time, giving an advantage to individuals and corporations who have the means to hire tax professionals to help them quickly navigate the process for obtaining the credit. Moreover, the tax credit circumvents limits on charitable deductions and the benefits high-income households can receive for charitable donations that currently exist under state law.

This legislative session, the Senate and Assembly each introduced the 2017 Education Affordability Act (S04366/A5862). This bill would give a 75% tax credit on donations, but only to those taxpayers whose income exceeds $300,000.  For taxpayers whose income falls below that figure, the tax credit is equivalent to 90% of the amount donated (which is capped at $875,000 per taxpayer).

The versions of this proposal in the Senate and Assembly differ in manner by which the tax credits are administered. Any tax credit that functions such that the state helps facilitate the cost of religious education undermines the core principle of church-state separation in the United States Constitution, and directly violates the New York State Constitution.

Reform Jewish Values

Study and education is of crucial importance to the Jewish people. Judaism teaches that “By three things the world exists: On the Torah (study), on worship and on acts of loving kindness,” Pirke Avot 1:2. As Reform Jews and as Americans, we believe that the strength of our Nation’s society lies in our diversity – people from different backgrounds, religions, cultures and ethnicities forming a community of shared values, ethical principles, sensitivity to the rights of others – especially the minorities and the marginalized, mutual trust, an appreciation of our differences and acceptance of mutual responsibility for each other’s welfare.  These tenets are best learned in our public schools and then reinforced in our workplaces and neighborhoods.

General Support for Education

Study and education is of crucial importance to the Jewish people. Judaism teaches that “By three things the world exists: On the Torah (study), on worship and on acts of loving kindness,” Pirke Avot 1:2.

The URJ has continually recognized the importance of public education to American Jews and to all people generally. “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.” Public Education, 2001.

Public Funding for Private Education

The Union for Reform Judaism opposes all attempts to channel public funds to private and parochial schools. In a 1961 resolution, the Union stated that “The devotion of our Union to the separation of religion and state, and our equally deep commitment to public education as a cornerstone of the American democratic process, impel us at this 46th Biennial assembly to reaffirm our opposition to any form of governmental aid to elementary and secondary schools under the supervision or control of any religious denomination or sect — Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.”

In 1972 the Reform Movement passed a resolution opposing “using public funds for nonpublic elementary and secondary schools, believing that such aid would infringe the separation of church and state and have damaging impact on public schools.”