Losing Faith in Stimulus?

Posted on January 26, 2009 In News

Democrats Exclude Faith Schools from Budget Billions

Although their monopoly on power in Washington is but days old, Democrats are already imperiling their recent, hard-won gains with religious voters. Americans of faith welcomed Barack Obama’s invitation of pastors Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery to pray at his Inauguration, noted his pre-inaugural church service with T.D. Jakes, and tuned in to the National Prayer Service with an array of rabbis, imams and others on Jan. 21.

But after a long campaign in which Obama and the Democrats engaged in unprecedented outreach to religious communities, closed the “God gap” and won more of the faithful’s votes, Democrats now have the power to govern, not just engage in faith talk. Symbolic gestures, while appreciated, pale in comparison to concrete policy making, and there’s nothing more concrete in Washington than putting your budget money where your mouth is.

President Obama and congressional leaders have decided that billions of dollars in school modernization projects will aid America’s ailing economy by creating thousands of jobs to perform the work, and that such projects will also be wise investments in America’s energy independence and improving our children’s learning. They have, therefore, allocated $14 billion of the $825 billion economic recovery package to such “green schools” initiatives.

But the Democrats have, so far, excluded parochial and other nonpublic schools from eligibility in the multibillion-dollar program, even though modernizing these schools would achieve the identical goals of job creation and energy efficiency. It is this unfair exclusion that will rile religious voters.

The No. 1 “kitchen table” issue for many middle-class faith families is the cost of sending their kids to parochial or independent schools from kindergarten through high school. In the current economic downturn, more of these families are seeking scholarships from their kids’ schools and, for this reason, as well as decreased contributions from supporters, the schools’ budgets are strained.

Moreover, according to the Council on American Private Education, nonpublic schools currently save American public school systems an estimated $48 billion each year, enroll more than 5 million students and employ nearly 500,000 full-time teachers. If parochial or independent schools have to cut their enrollment or close, it will be the already cash-strapped public school systems that will have to absorb the students. The public systems’ benefit from the choices of nonpublic school families is even greater if you consider that nonpublic school parents also support public schools by paying their fair share of federal and local taxes.

Including parochial and other independent and nonpublic schools in the stimulus’ green schools program would not only demonstrate Democrats’ inclusion of faith communities in this critical effort, it would be consistent with existing federal school aid and improvement programs. These include federal support for computers and software, library resources, noise abatement, asbestos removal, and security improvements — all of which are provided to parochial and independent schools on an equitable basis.

In laying out his criteria for the contents of the economic recovery legislation earlier this month, Obama called upon “Democrats and Republicans … to put good ideas ahead of the old ideological battles, a sense of common purpose above … narrow partisanship.” By this measure, expanding the scope of school modernization programs to include parochial and other nonpublic schools is the correct policy choice. It is also smart politics if Democrats wish to “keep the faith.”

Nathan J. Diament is director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and teaches religion and politics at American University.