Jewish Philanthropy To Test Vouchers In Jewish Schools in Atlanta, Cleveland

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To find out what it takes to get more Jewish parents to choose Jewish day schools for their children, a New York City foundation has launched an apparently first-of-its-kind privately financed voucher program in two cities.

Underwritten by the Avi Chai Foundation, the program will give annual scholarships of $3,000 to Atlanta- and Cleveland-area parents with children entering grades 2-8 in the fall. To be eligible, parents cannot have children now enrolled in Jewish day schools. They must also choose one of the four participating Jewish grade schools in their city.

"The goal here is to test whether we can increase enrollment in Jewish day schools by reducing the financial burden on parents," said Yossi Prager, the foundation's executive director for North America.

The philanthropy, which promotes commitment to Judaism, is not capping its total investment. But based on the number of open seats at the eight schools--which include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated institutions--the organizers expect to draw 30 to 50 new students in each city. Parents will receive the vouchers for up to four years. If successful, the foundation intends to offer the vouchers in other cities.

"Many factors affect what motivates parents to send their kids to Jewish day schools," said Lauren Merkin, an Avi Chai trustee. "That's exactly one of the things we're hoping to learn."

Middle-Class Lure

The aid will cover less than half the tuition at most of the participating schools, which runs between $6,500 and $8,000 yearly. But the organizers hope the scholarships are enough to entice more middle- and upper-middle-income families who are ineligible for means-tested assistance.

"This program may help families who are wavering and trying to decide if they really want to invest in a day school education," said Ray Levi, the head of the Agnon School, an unaffiliated Jewish school near Cleveland.

Cleveland is the focus of a continuing national debate over vouchers and whether public money should pay for private and religious school tuition. None of the Cleveland-area schools participating in the Avi Chai program takes part in that city's state-supported voucher program, which is being challenged in court.

Instead of adopting the traditional term "scholarship," the foundation selected the word "voucher," which is often used to describe the concept of taxpayer support for private schools. Foundation officials say they labeled them vouchers because they aren't means- or merit-tested and allow parents to choose among several schools. Although the label could make more people "comfortable with the word 'voucher,'" the program's chief goal is to test families' price sensitivity, Mr. Prager said.

'Stronger Profile'

Jewish day schools have become increasingly popular in recent years as more Jewish parents, including a growing number of non-Orthodox, seek to ensure their children's continuing commitment to their faith. An estimated 200,000 students attend Jewish day schools in North America. ("Breaking for Tradition," March 18, 1998.)

Jewish educators hope the new aid program will help build on that momentum. "This will raise the prominence of Jewish day school education among Jews and non-Jews, giving it an even stronger profile as an education movement," said Cheryl Finkel, the head of Atlanta's pre-K-8 Epstein School.

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