Betsy DeVos has been nominated as education secretary
Betsy DeVos has been nominated as education secretary

Bay Area Jewish schools debate plans of education nominee


President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary could channel billions of public dollars into private schools, including Jewish day schools. But not all Jewish schools in the Bay Area support such a national proposal.

Betsy DeVos favors a plan that would set aside $20 billion in federal money to fund charter-school development or vouchers for poor families to pay for private education.

“The status quo in education is not acceptable. Together, we can work to make transformational change that ensures every student in America has the opportunity to fulfill his or her highest potential,” DeVos said in a Nov. 23 statement after being nominated.

Some Jewish day school leaders have spoken out in favor of using public funds for private education, noting that the high cost of tuition prevents many children from receiving an education that incorporates their heritage and religion. If enacted, the policy would blur the lines of government and religious institutions, bringing the U.S. closer to the K-12 education model in England and Canada, which use public funds for parochial schools.

Rabbi Tsipi Gabai, director of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at El Cerrito-based Tehiyah Day School, thinks DeVos’ plan could be a great thing.

“I don’t call my school a religious school. Judaism is not only a religion,” Gabai said in a telephone interview. “They wouldn’t be funding us to do prayers. They’re funding us so kids can come and learn about their identity, history and tradition.”

She added that such funds could be diverted specifically for classes also taught in non-Jewish schools, such as English, math and physical education, and helping students with learning disabilities.

“Children spend the whole day learning these subjects, and for one hour they’re taught Jewish studies,” Gabai said. “You’re telling me that, because of one hour that they learn Jewish studies, you’re not going to fund this school?”

But Barbara Gereboff, head of Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, fears such a shift would take money away from public schools with the greatest need.

“Our public schools need those funds tremendously,” she said. “I think diverting that money into the private sector turns education into a bit of a Wild West.”

Gereboff also strongly disagrees with DeVos’ views on Common Core standards, the national guidelines that determine what K-12 students should know in English and math at the end of each school year. As of 2014, 42 states adhered to Common Core standards.

DeVos wants to do away with the model, giving parents and schools more leeway to determine what constitutes a quality education. She has chaired the Alliance for School Choice, the largest organization in the U.S. that advocates for parents’ rights to pick schools beyond publicly provided ones. She also headed All Children Matter, a political action committee that supported vouchers to fund private tuition and award tax credits to businesses for funding private school scholarships.

“The answer isn’t bigger government — it’s local control, it’s listening to parents and it’s giving more choices,” DeVos said at a post-election Trump rally in December in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Gereboff said such a move could be harmful in religious schools, where varying opinions exist on how to teach subjects like science and history.

“You’d end up with schools that are not teaching kids how to think critically and that are creating science that’s not part of acceptable norms. That’s very problematic,” Gereboff said.

In an ideal world — one with better resources for public schools and common standards of education — Gereboff said funding Jewish schools wouldn’t be a bad thing.

“I would love to see more working together of private and public schools. We do that right now with our district,” she said. “I just don’t see all the pieces fitting together in [DeVos’] plan.”

Saul Sugarman

Saul Sugarman is a freelance writer.