despite the vocal support of mainstream Jewish advocacy groups, not everyone in the community is applauding tax credits for private schooling. The notion of tax credits first publicly split the Jewish community last summer, when Alliance party leader Stockwell Day dangled it before Conservative and Orthodox Jews in the GTA prior to the federal election. Now Premier Mike Harris has decided to make it a reality, offering up a $3,500 tax credit to be phased in over five years.
"There are divisions in all communities," U of T political science professor Nelson Wiseman points out. "The media make it appear the Jewish community is united on this, but I suspect it's divided."
In fact, although the new chair of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Ed Morgan, wrote in the Toronto Star that the "50-per-cent-refundable tax credits for independent schools is warmly welcomed by the Jewish community," he appears to speak for a minority.
According to the Jewish Board of Education, of the approximately 40,000 Jewish school-age children in the GTA, only 11,300 attend private day schools.
While Morgan recognizes that the Jewish community isn't unanimous on this issue, he still tells NOW the CJC speaks for "the entire organized Jewish community -- virtually every Jewish organization and synagogue in the country."
He maintains that the number of children enrolled in day schools is irrelevant.
"Just because you don't send your children to a day school doesn't mean that you're not offended at the idea that Catholics get funding and everyone else doesn't."
Morgan also argues that tax breaks for private schooling won't spark a mass exodus from the public system. In fact, he says, it won't hurt the public system at all. Quite the contrary.
"I believe the public system will improve through having a little competition," Morgan tells NOW.
There are scores of Jews who vehemently disagree with Morgan and the CJC.
"It's always distressing when anyone says they're speaking for the entire community," says Karen Levy, spiritual leader of the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, which numbers 50 families and runs its own Sunday school.
Oraynu members are opposed to public funding for private schools.
"We are for 100 per cent of every education tax dollar going into one non-denominational public school system," Levy says.
A number of parents in the congregation, however, do send their children to private academic schools. Levy has paid for a private education for two of her own children.
"I believe if people want anything other than the public system, they should pay for it themselves," she says, adding, "Most of us believe that kids benefit more from going to school in a multicultural setting. We value Jewish identity very strongly, but we seek ways of developing that other than a parochial day school."
Wiseman, who attended a private Jewish school as a young man, opposes public funding for religious schools. He argues that Jews have traditionally looked inside the community to subsidize religious schooling for those who need it, and that that should remain the primary source of funding. (Indeed, the UJA Federation pours $7 million annually into tuition fee subsidies for private Jewish education.)
"It's a sad day when our faith-based groups are dependent on the public trough," says Wiseman.
Despite the CJC's contention that public funding for private schools hasn't hurt the public system in other provinces, many Jews don't see it as a positive long-term policy.
"The eventual result of this is the erosion of the public education system," says Carly Steinman, social action coordinator at the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism. "Many people (in the community) have said to me that public education really represents a fundamental building block of a democratic society."
Howard Kaplan, with the Morris Winchevsky School for the United Jewish People's Order, a fraternal organization that is a CJC member, echoes Steinman.
"Harris is using people who send their kids to private schools to suck more money out of the public education system," Kaplan says.
Thousands of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and other religionists have also been pressuring the Tories for public funding. The Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools is the largest lobby group, representing 73 schools and 14,000 students. (There are approximately 25,000 students in private Christian schools across the province, not including Mennonite schools.) Spokesperson John Vanaselt says OACS represents a spectrum of denominations, from mainstream to evangelical.
But Dr. John Johnston, the chair of the Ecumenical Study Commission on Public Education in Ontario, the officially appointed body coordinating all the major churches in the province on religious education (including the Roman Catholic church), personally opposes the tax credit scheme.
"All (denominations) would like to see a very strong, well-funded public school system," he says.
An additional 60,000 students attend private academic schools. Forty of those schools, including the elitist Upper Canada College and Bishop Strachan School, are represented by the Conference of Independent Schools of Ontario.
The Conference is chaired by Natalie Little, head of Bishop Strachan and a former public school principal, who is also opposed to tax credits for private schools.
"She certainly has concerns about it," says Peter O'Brien, a spokesperson at Bishop Strachan. "The point is that in no jurisdiction in North America in which any research has been done does any public school system improve when you take money out of it."