Newly minted Congressman-in-waiting Hakeem Jeffries reiterated for a second day that taxpayers should support parochial education by using the tax code to relieve the “crushing burden” on religious-school parents.
One day after winning the Democratic primary for Congress, which is tantamount to election in mostly Democratic Brooklyn, Mr. Jeffries clarified and expanded his Election Night comments to The Local that he wants the public to get involved in funding some private education. But Mr. Jeffries made it clear that he does not support school vouchers – a controversial, and not clearly constitutional, mechanism that would give parents a direct subsidy to send their children to religious schools.
The Local had a chance to grill the likely congressman in an interview at the Grace Agard Harewood Senior Center on Fulton Street on Wednesday afternoon. The exhilarating back-and-forth is a must read for anyone who cares about public and private education.
The Local: You said last night that you wanted to use public money to assist private school education. Are you talking about school vouchers?
“I don’t support the school voucher approach because that is too much of a privatization. But … we have to facilitate the public’s right to practice their genuinely held religious beliefs [and] look at creative ways to support those decisions.”
Hakeem Jeffries: I don’t support school vouchers. But I do think that the government can look at vehicles to alleviate some of the cost burden on parents who make a genuine legitimate decision that they want to send their children to a religious-based education, whether that is a yeshiva education, a Christian school, or even a Muslim school.
There are parents of different religious persuasions, all of whom would like to see some measure of relief. It is clear that the government cannot directly support religious education, but the government, in a variety of ways can assist, as we have done with transportation or [scholarships]. There is a foundation for this.
Local: OK, but want kind of “vehicles” beyond that? Because when you talk about buses or scholarships, you are talking about very little money. There is a lot more money that the religious community wants on this.
Mr. Jeffries: Unfortunately, due to the constraints of the First Amendment, I don’t support the school voucher approach because that is too much of a privatization. But if you look at the First Amendment, there is an Establishment clause and a Free Exercise clause. The Establishment clause is a firewall from the government adopting a religion but the Free Exercise clause also says we have to facilitate the public’s right to practice their genuinely held religious beliefs. And if that is the case, and you have parents who are making this decision based on their genuinely held religious beliefs that their children must receive a religious education, then I think we have to look at creative ways to support those decisions.
Local: But I have to keep asking: What are those creative ways? Someone says “I have a genuine religious belief. Give me $13,000 to privately educate my child.”
Mr. Jeffries: No. We’re not talking about direct subsidies. There is no way to approach that. But the tax code has already been used to support religious institutions in other contexts. For instance, religious institutions are eligible for tax deductibility. So we can look at the tax code to help people who are suffering under the crushing burden.
Local: You just used the term “crushing burden.” Since when did that become a public burden?
Mr. Jeffries: We should understand that the reality is that if you have thousands of students, say yeshiva school students who are not in the public school system, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars a year that the public school system does not have to absorb. So if you look at the economics, even through the vehicle of the tax code, it would be modest in comparison. It’s exponentially more if you absorb these students in the public schools. And that’s why I think there is an economic argument to provide some measure of relief.
Another reporter: But parents already feel that public schools are underfunded. And now you going to take some money and give it to the privates?
Mr. Jeffries: I am not saying that. If you think about the public school system, we have been a champion of increasing funding for the public schools. In 2010, we were able to get an addition $698 million for public schools. And this year, we increased funding $805 million. This is not a zero-sum issue. And we have to move the education debate away from the divisiveness over charter schools vs. traditional schools; inner city schools vs. zoned schools; specialized schools; and suburban schools. That all complicates things. I just want good schools. And of course, I support the public school system. My sons go to public schools. I graduated from public schools. I fought against irresponsible actions as they relate to the public school system. I opposed Cathie Black and mayoral control, because there was not enough parental accountability. But I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game.
Other reporter: But isn’t it? The pie is only so big. The question is how do you split it? It sounds like you’re saying we need to give a small slice to the parochial schools.
Mr. Jeffries: It’s a very modest amount. And we’re being unnecessarily divisive here.
Local: Divisive? That’s what we do, by the way.
Mr. Jeffries: The reality is that we need to increase the size of the pie for children all across the board. This issue was weighed during the campaign and my opponent [Councilman Charles Barron] tried to make a big deal about my position, but you see the result. I’m not going to move away from any issue that the voters have clearly indicated is one that should be embraced. There is nothing more significant than the education of children. And I will fight for the public school system. But we also have to take a holistic approach to education reform.
Read more at THE LOCAL.