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Agudath Israel of America - National Public Policy Position Paper

II. EDUCATIONAL CONCERNS

Agudath Israel serves as a liaison between government and the entire spectrum of Orthodox Jewish educational institutions in the United States: the nearly 600 elementary and secondary schools that come under the umbrella of the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, which enroll approximately 150,000 students across the country; and the approximately 50 post secondary schools accredited by the Association of Advanced Rabbinic and Talmudical Schools, which enroll well over 10,000 students. These schools have experienced rapid growth in recent years -- noteworthy in light of the fact that religious schools in several other faith communities have over these same years suffered declining enrollments, and all the more remarkable when viewed in the context of the once predicted demise of Orthodoxy as a prominent factor in American Jewish life.

In this liaison capacity, and as representatives of a people that has long attached the highest priority to education, Agudath Israel has taken a considerable interest in education related policy concerns; and has consistently advocated on behalf of govern mental policies designed generally to promote the interests of students and schools across the nation, public and non-public alike.

Educational Quality and Funding

Agudath Israel supports education funding to improve the quality of American education. There is no wiser investment the United States can make than an invest ment in the education of its youth. It is an investment in the future that will yield benefits not only in increased literacy, but in such diverse areas as economic productivity, crime prevention and national security. Most importantly, it will give each American child the tools he or she needs to maximize personal potential. Agudath Israel accordingly welcomes the effort toward increased federal spending for vital education programs.

Higher education, no less than elementary and secondary education, needs to be enhanced if America is to retain its pre eminence as leader of the free world. Agudath Israel urges continued support for student assistance programs designed to encourage needy students to pursue higher education.

Increased funding for pre-school programs is yet another investment that promises handsome dividends in helping stimulate children intellectually and acculture them socially even before they begin their formal school experiences. Agudath Israel supports such existing federal initiatives as Head Start and the Child Care Development Block Grant, which help needy parents afford quality pre-kindergarten programs.

Educational Equity and Choice

The First Amendment's prohibition against governmental establishment of religion, as interpreted by the courts, forbids direct governmental aid to religious institutions. However, as the Supreme Court has held in a number of different contexts, not all forms of aid to parents or students who attend religiously oriented non-public schools breach the constitutional wall of separation between church and state. Agudath Israel has accordingly supported constitutionally appropriate legislation designed to ensure that non-public school students, as well as their parents and teachers, be on equal or equitable footing with their public school counterparts with respect to government benefit programs; and has worked with Congress and the Clinton Administration to ensure that recent education initiatives include appropriate equitability provisions.

Agudath Israel commends the Clinton Administration for its vigorous constitutional defense of the federal "Title VI" (formerly "Chapter 2") program, under which non-public school students, like public school students, benefit from library books and a variety of educational materials. The principle of equitability would be entirely eviscerated were the constitution interpreted to prohibit the provision of such secular materials to needy students simply because they attend religious schools.

Another federal education initiative that has occupied a great deal of Agudath Israel's attention is the "Title 1" (formerly "Chapter 1") remedial educational program. The federal law commendably mandates equitable participation in this vital program by public and non-public school children alike. However, as a result of the Supreme Court's 1984 decision prohibit ing Chapter 1 teachers from conducting remedial education classes on non-public school premises, there was a significant fall off in both the quantity and quality of non -public school participation. Fortunately, in 1997 the Supreme Court reconsidered and reversed its 1984 ruling, thereby removing the constitutional barrier to the provision of on-site remediation under Title I. Agudath Israel is working with local educational officials to ensure that the Court’s 1997 ruling is properly implemented, and that non-public school children receive their equitable share of Title I services.

The federal law also mandates equitable participation of non-public school students in special education programs for the handicapped. Yet services for this needy population have failed to meet this basic obligation. Agudath Israel urges that the equitability provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) be clarified and strengthened. Among other things, Agudath Israel supports efforts to ensure that a child's cultural background, including his home language and religious environment, be taken into consideration in determining whether the public schools can meet his special needs -- a problem that led to the unfortunate confrontation in Kiryas Joel that was litigated in 1994 all the way to the Supreme Court, and is once again before the Court on a petition for certiorari.

On a more fundamental level, Agudath Israel strongly supports the trend toward increasing educational choice. One of the keys to educational excellence is parental involvement. There is no better way to encourage such involvement, and to ensure educational account ability, than to develop policies that allow parents to choose the school that is best for their children, whether public or non-public, secular or sectarian. Moreover, introducing an element of free market competition among schools can only serve to strengthen American education.

Agudath Israel believes -- and has expressed its view before Congress and the courts -- that educational expense tax credits and educational vouchers are constitutionally permissible means of promoting school choice, innovative approaches that represent sound social policy and deserve every chance to succeed. Education plays too important a role to preclude families of limited financial means from choosing the best and most appropriate schools for their child ren. Agudath Israel urges Congress to repeal that section of the "Goals 2000" legislation that prohibits states from using Goals 2000 educational reform funds for school choice programs that include non-public schools; and to enact in its place legislation designed to encourage expansive school choice demonstration projects throughout the country.

Agudath Israel further urges the enactment of legislation that would allow for the establishment of Education Savings Accounts, which would give parents an opportunity to set aside money for their children’s educational expenses and to have the interest on those accounts accumulate tax-free. Allowing such accounts would foster educational choice, as well as encourage broad-scale private-sector investment in education – a "win-win" outcome that deserves favorable consideration by Congress and the Clinton Administration.

Educational Independence and Diversity

Another of Agudath Israel's broad areas of educational concern relates to the importance of fostering educational diversity and maintaining the independence and autonomy of Jewish and other non-public schools. Excessive governmental regulation, with or without attendant support, can destroy the very character of religiously affiliated schools and institutions. Such schools and institutions must be permitted to maintain policies consistent with their religious faith.

One example of Agudath Israel's fight for educational independence is in the area of school curricula and assessment standards. The autonomy of non-public schools is threatened, and the cause of diversity is harmed, when government imposes one uniform set of curricular requirements, or assessment mechanisms, on all students regardless of the type of school they attend. Agudath Israel especially opposes any effort by government to impose upon non-public schools curricular or other educational requirements they deem religiously objectionable.

Another context in which the autonomy of non-public schools is occasionally endangered is that of anti discrimination laws. Religious schools that draw distinctions between the sexes, for example, typically do so out of religious conviction, not venal motivation. Similarly, religious schools that prefer students or employees of their own faith are not engaged in morally offensive religious discrimination; they seek merely to maintain an educational environment best suited to promote the religious principles for which they exist. Agudath Israel thus supports carefully drawn "religious tenet" exemptions to anti discrimination laws, so as to permit religious institutions to maintain their religious identity and integrity.

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