NYC mayor reaches out to religious schools to boost free pre-K access

Education
by Laura Edghill
Posted 3/17/15, 10:15 am

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is reaching out to the city’s religious schools in an attempt to create 17,000 additional state-funded spots for full-day pre-Kindergarteners this fall. His proposal would provide the schools with an average of $10,000 per student in state funding, making the pre-K classes tuition-free. But in order to be eligible for the funds, religious schools would be required to limit their religious instruction to a portion of the day, leaving the remaining 6 1/2 hours dedicated to “secular” instruction.

The proposal is the result of one of de Blasio’s consistent campaign promises—more availability of free, full-day pre-K programs. Fueling the push is de Blasio’s goal to narrow the achievement gap for low-income, minority students.

Some current pre-K classes are in public schools but many are run by religious groups and other community-based organizations under contract to the city. The latest proposal is aimed at increasing the participation of private religious schools, particularly the Orthodox Jewish schools that serve a growing portion of the city’s population.

Those schools, as well as Christian and Muslim schools, are considering the offer, but many are skeptical about the practicality and wisdom of dividing instruction between religious and secular subjects. De Blasio’s team proposes cultural elements of religious history can be taught during the regular school day, but observing or participating in an actual religious ritual would not be allowed.

“Can you conduct a mock Passover Seder?” asked Jeff Leb of the Orthodox Union, a national Jewish organization, in an interview with The New York Times. “Can you discuss the symbolism of the menorah for Hanukkah? … Are these things cultural or religious?”

Many of the city’s religious schools currently offer full-day pre-K programs that provide a half day of tuition-based religious instruction coupled with a half day of publicly funded secular instruction. De Blasio wants schools to consider modifying these programs to fit the new format. In return, the schools will receive more funding per student, allowing them to offer the full-day pre-K classes for free. But in order to comply with the state guidelines, they will have to alter how they deliver religious instruction. 

One option is to provide a midday break for religious instruction. Students who are not interested could opt out, and it would allow the schools daily sessions with no state-imposed constraints on religious teaching. Another option is one currently used by numerous Roman Catholic schools. Students can attend an optional half hour of religious instruction at 8 a.m., with the regular school day beginning at 8:30 a.m.

But civil liberties groups are skeptical as well. They say allowing a midday prayer or religious instruction break in a publicly funded classroom conflicts with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. 

“It’s kind of like waving a red flag in front of a bull,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “This seems to be asking for a lawsuit.”

Maya Wiley, counsel to the mayor, said the city is doing its best to “penetrate every single community” with a pre-K program.

Wiley, who formerly worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the pre-K program is constitutional even with the prayer break, which will not be funded by taxpayer dollars.

“We’re not violating any law here,” she said. “All we’re doing is making sure we can maximize the number of seats that we can create for kids.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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