By Shlomo Levin
The struggle to pay day school tuition is an albatross around the neck of the Jewish community. But a new program is helping Jewish families in Milwaukee pay their day school tuition bill. The program pays the full tuition for ninety-six out of the 606 children who attend Milwaukee’s three Jewish day schools. The remaining families do not receive any aid.
I am referring to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, commonly known as school vouchers. Through the program, which began in the 1990-1991 school year, the state of Wisconsin pays tuition to private schools for participating students. The school must accept the payment, which is approximately $6,000, as full tuition. Originally only nonsectarian schools were entitled to participate, but in 1995 the law was amended to include religious schools as well (provided voucher students be allowed to refuse participation in religious instruction). After a multi-year court challenge, the program was ruled constitutional by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, and in 1998 religious schools, including Yeshiva Elementary School (YES), on Milwaukee’s west side, began enrolling voucher students. YES is the only Jewish school in the United States benefiting from government vouchers.
While $6,000 is below the true cost of educating a student, the voucher program provides a great financial boost to the school. Those families eligible to receive vouchers have low incomes, and few, if any, would be able to pay more than a fraction of their family’s tuition bill. Thus, $6,000 per student is much more than the school would be able to collect in tuition.
“Without vouchers we would never be able to provide the high-quality education that we do,” says Rabbi Eliezer Speiser, principal of YES. “[Were the voucher program to come to an end], we would have to lay off teachers, combine classes and cut corners. The impact would be devastating to our school.”
“When YES was founded the plan was to succeed with income from tuition and donations,” explains Jim Hiller, a member of the school board. “When vouchers came on the scene, they removed the pressure on parents to pay tuition and allowed us to focus on fundraising among the parent body and the broader community.”
Since the Milwaukee Jewish Federation maintains one scholarship fund for all the local day schools, the vouchers take a load off the shoulders of the entire Jewish community. If voucher families would have to apply for federation scholarships, there would be that much less money to subsidize children at the other schools. According to one estimate, vouchers free up to $100,000 per year for the Jewish community to subsidize other pupils.
Most Orthodox families in Milwaukee can’t benefit from the voucher program because of the following eligibility criteria:
- The school must be located within the Milwaukee city limits. Additionally, the child must reside within the city limits. Two of the three day schools are in the suburbs, making them ineligible to receive vouchers. Most Milwaukee Jews live in the suburbs as well.
- Family income must be less than 175 percent of the poverty line. Most Jewish families’ incomes, thank goodness, exceed that amount.
- There is an overall cap on enrollment in the voucher program that threatens to block future expansion of all the voucher schools.
Yeshiva Elementary School in Milwaukee is the only Jewish school in the United States benefiting from government vouchers.
Why all these rules? Simple—the purpose of the voucher program is to give inner-city kids in failing school districts other options. Advancing the religious needs of Jewish children was the farthest thing from the minds of most of the people who advocated for the program. The low-income Jewish families that live within the city limits and send their children to the Jewish day school located within the city are taking advantage of a law that was not primarily for their benefit.
Two years ago, soon after I took on the position of rabbi at Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee, I began to wonder if there was a way to expand the voucher program so that a greater number of families could benefit. By chance, Jim Doyle, the governor of Wisconsin, was present at a meeting of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis that I attended. Naively violating the first rule of every trial lawyer’s handbook (“Do not ask a question unless you already know the answer”), I asked the governor about prospects for expanding the voucher program. I proceeded to explain to him how important day school education is to the Jewish community and how helpful the program is for eligible families.
The governor looked at me, and said, somewhat sternly, “Absolutely not. No way. Not as long as I’m in office. And also—definitely not for you [i.e., the Jewish community].”
The governor’s response reflects the societal antagonism towards breaching the traditional wall separating church and state.
Are vouchers a solution to the problem of escalating tuition at day schools? While they may be a solution for a select group of Milwaukee parents, it is not clear whether such a program could be replicated in other communities. Two critical issues need to be addressed. First, is the Jewish community prepared to weaken the wall between church and state in order help fund Jewish education? Since I believe that day school education is a critical ingredient for the future of the American Jewish community, I am willing to do so. Others may disagree.
Second, with which political group or groups should we align ourselves in our campaign to introduce vouchers nationwide? The strongest argument for vouchers—and the only one with any possibility of near-term success—is that they hold promise for boosting the prospects of impoverished minorities. Should we campaign for vouchers in our own neighborhoods on the platform that we are concerned about the low-income students in failing public schools in our midst (then, of course, attempt to add language to proposed legislation that permits our own community to also receive funds)? This would seem to only be appropriate if our concern for this legislation is motivated not only by self-interest but by the belief that vouchers are beneficial for the broader community.
Ninety-six Jewish Milwaukee day school children are lucky. A formidable array of advocacy groups that the Jewish community knows little about brought about the voucher program. These fortunate children are able to stow away in their luggage and enjoy the ride. But don’t count on bringing vouchers to your hometown. If you want to benefit from school vouchers, I have a suggestion: Move to Milwaukee. It’s a great city—you’ll love it.
Rabbi Levin received rabbinic ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate after completing his studies at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel. He is currently the rabbi of Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.