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September 16, 2014 | 21st Elul 5774

Resources for Congregations with Pre-K Programs

To: Rabbis, Presidents, Early Childhood Directors & Executive Directors of synagogue-based Pre-K programs.

From: Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center, Rabbi Jan Katzew, Director of Lifelong Learning, Cathy Rolland, Early Childhood Specialist

Re: The impact of Pre-K government funding on our congregational early childhood/Pre-K programs

Peter Weidhorn, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union instructed us to engage with our congregations that have Pre-K programs in analyzing the impact of growing government funded universal Pre-K programs on our synagogues and develop guidance for our congregations in addressing the challenges and opportunities such government funded programs offer. This memo, laying out those challenges and opportunities, is a first step in developing an ongoing partnership in addressing these issues.

Summary
The growing trend towards state and federally funded Pre-K programs presents wonderful opportunities for America’s children and poses quite daunting challenges to the strength and well-being of our synagogues’ Pre-K programs and our synagogues themselves. Even the best privately funded Pre-K program is at a severe disadvantage in competing with free publicly funded programs.

In the long-term, early childhood programs are consistently feeder programs for engagement with, and membership in, our synagogues. Involvement in early childhood programs correlates strongly with sustained engagement during the students’ and families’ lives. Thus, this new challenge will have significant impact on the long-term strength of our synagogues. In the short-term, many early childhood centers are income producers for our synagogues and a fall off of enrollment can have significant impact on the budgets of our synagogues. Finding a way to embrace the strength of these Pre-K government funding sources in a manner that does not undercut either a distinctive Jewish character to most Pre-K programs or our commitment to church-state separation, is a major priority for the Reform Movement.

Few in the religious community are yet focused on this challenge and, drawing on best practices in our early childhood centers, the URJ is seeking to be ahead of the curve by providing guidance over the next several years as we all adjust to this new educational environment. This memo begins that process of providing resources to our congregations with Pre-K programs and synagogue-based early childhood centers.

Background
The first system of “universal” education began for the Jewish community two thousand years ago with Joshua ben Gamla mandating that all boys 6 years of age and older be given an education (B. Talmud, Baba Batra 20b-22a). The tradition of seeking to ensure universal education to boys and girls has been a sustaining value of Reform Judaism. As our understanding of child development and educational theory and practice has progressed, we have recognized the vital impact that early education can have on children and demonstrated that understanding through the development of a network of superb early childhood programs. Currently, in the Reform Movement, well over 300 of our synagogues provide quality early childhood programs.

Now, early childhood education has come to the forefront in public discourse throughout the United States. Political and educational leaders have recognized the need to focus on early education for all, and America is now on the path to universalizing quality Pre-K public education (Pre-K Now).

Pre-K Now funding streams available from government sources are profoundly affecting our Movement’s more than 300 early childhood centers, which serve nearly 30,000 children. The primary challenges involve finances and enrollment. New government funding streams in many states subsidize both public and private institutions that may be in direct competition for enrollment with many of our congregations with Early Childhood Centers.

In the words of Jenifer Friedman, Early Childhood Director at The Early Childhood Education Center, Temple Beth Tikvah, Roswell, Georgia, “The curricula of our schools can compete with the finest, but especially in today’s economy, we cannot compete with free.”

Marc Newman, Chair of the Union’s Early Childhood Committee reported, that on Long Island, New York, a congregation lost over 30% of their children to a public school district’s free Pre-K.

This challenge is being felt throughout the Jewish community. The Alliance for Jewish Early Education developed a questionnaire for all early childhood directors in the Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Jewish Community Centers of America. Thirty-five percent responded that publicly funded Pre-K is already impacting their programs, with 83% of them stating enrollment has been affected adversely.

While we believe that universal Pre-K is a step in the right direction as a matter of national education policy, we need to address the negative impact on our current early childhood structure as well as on congregational membership and the future of our Movement. At stake is the viability of the Jewish early childhood network and the intimately connected congregational system. We need to change perceptions of early childhood programs as cash cows and profit centers to foundations and long-term investments in the future of Reform Judaism.

The Current Situation
In many cases, government Pre-K funding is available to faith-based institutions providing early childhood education. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, as of 2009, 31 states currently allow faith-based organizations to receive Pre-K funds. However, the regulations governing these funds and the processes for navigating the regulations vary from state to state and are very complicated. You can see where your state is in its funding practices and what the requirements are for recipients by going to the website: http://www.pre-know.org/.” (See also this report (available at http://www.edlawcenter.org/ELCPublic/Publications/PDF/IntegratingFaithBasedOrganizations.pdf) for a Summary of State Legal Requirements and Policy Recommendations).

While state regulations differ widely, many prohibit faith-based institutions from using universal Pre-K funding for religious programming.

How can we maintain the integrity of our unique Jewish early learning structure and be supportive of the vision of universal Pre-K? In order to continue to compete effectively with schools that have access to and accept government funding, we will need to find ways to accept government funds and generate additional non-government funds in accordance with state regulations and church-state protections.

In order to meet these challenges, different approaches are already being implemented in some of our congregations eligible for government Pre-K funding.

The following three models illustrate different approaches our synagogues take in maintaining the integrity of early childhood programming while deriving benefit from Pre-K funding:

1. Accept government funds and separate Jewish and secular content in our Pre-K programs
Some congregations separate their religious and secular educational programs either because it is required by state laws or because they share the Reform Movement’s position that government funds should never be used for religious education or programs. A medium sized congregation in New York was feeling the impact on their four-year-old enrollment for several years before deciding to take action. They applied for state funding, having a complete understanding that under the NY state rules, all religious content would have to be separated from the universal Pre-K class. This included all classroom décor with Jewish content, as well as any and all programming and curriculum related to Jewish holidays or Judaic themes. The government funded secular educational program runs in the morning in classrooms without religious décor. For those parents who wish to provide their children with an integrated program with Jewish content, they can choose to pay an additional tuition for an afternoon program, which is held in classrooms with Jewish décor. Currently, the Pre-K class is at capacity with 14 children, with plans for a second class next year. According to the Director of Education, the school would be in danger of losing many families if it did not begin offering the universal Pre-K class, as there is competition all over the area, including more than one Yeshiva participating.

2. Accept government funds while NOT separating Jewish content from the Pre-K class
In states that do not require a separation of religious and secular education, some congregations have decided to accept funding without separating. A large congregation in Florida offers half day VPK (referred to as “voluntary Pre-K-VPK”). Known as “parent choice,” this program allows parents to choose where they send their child for a VPK class including faith infused schools. Jewish content remains throughout the program and entire curriculum. The school receives state funding of $2640 per child for the half day program. A VPK child cannot be charged for security, building fund, and membership but is charged for lunch during that half of the day through government funds. According to the Director of the Day School and Early Childhood Program, when parents are asked what factors are the most important, it turned out that free tuition was the most significant factor in choosing the synagogue’s school.

3. Create a means of synagogue support and outside private funding to guarantee future growth and sustainability
Some synagogues have turned to private funding from their local Jewish federation or private sources including their own members. An excellent example can be found in a small size congregation located in the south, which has made their Early Childhood program a gateway to synagogue membership and lifelong family commitment. The temple board voted to subsidize yearly the Pre-K class – 4 days per week, 4 hours per day - (1 class, maximum of 16 students) for a 3-year period. A $10,000 subsidy of the tuition system enabled them to charge lower tuitions of $100.00 (members) or $150.00 (non-members) a month for 9 months. This year (which is the 4th year) they went to a five-day a week program and raised their rates to $200.00 (members) and $250.00 (non-members). The long-term impact of this commitment is reflected in the fact that last year, 2/3 of the B’Nai Mitzvah students had been preschoolers at one time, AND 2/3 of that group is continuing in the synagogue’s confirmation program! Being able to maintain a robust Pre-K program through the stipends helps ensure the future strength and growth of the congregation, according to the congregation’s Education Director.

These examples highlight the challenges affecting not only our early childhood programs but also our congregations as institutions and the Reform Movement as a whole. We will need to be creative and proactive as we seek to balance our interests as Jews and our interests as Americans.

Recommendations

  • Focus your search locally; “Pre-K Now” changes will be very specific to your state. The best people to talk to are your community faith-based neighbors. Begin by contacting your local colleagues (ECE Directors, Rabbis, Ministers, Pastors, Board Members, Executive Directors or Administrators) who work in faith-based settings that sponsor ECE programs. Listen to each other’s stories. Plan for a shared future.
  • Learn from your colleagues through the URJ Affiliates: ECE-RJ, PARDeS, NATE, NATA, CCAR and the ACC what is being done in congregations facing similar challenges. You can reach out directly or check the URJ Early Childhood website for best practices as we develop these resources in the coming months.
  • If you are located in a community with a federation or central community agency, contact them and engage them in this process. Find out if Jewish community education funding is available to help your school particularly where the religious nature of the program will not allow for adaptation to the state standards for funding. Where you are eligible for state funding, many federations have state capital lobbyists who may be able to help. You can also contact the Religious Action Center staff for assistance.
  • Plan ahead and take a holistic view of your congregation. Meet with your colleagues in your congregation (membership committee, education committee, and early childhood committee, ritual practices committee…) to explore the potential effects the transition to Pre-K Now may have on your community.
  • Be as supportive as you can of the Reform Movement’s long-standing advocacy for strong church-state protections. While every congregation is autonomous and must make these difficult decisions for itself, we have consistently opposed, at a maximum, government funding for religious schools of any kind and, at a minimum, government support for programs in such schools (that have religious content). We strongly recommend therefore, at a minimum separating religious content in a full day program into two parts: half secular paid for by government funds and half with religious integrated curriculum paid for by private funds. Indeed, wherever feasible, separately incorporating the school from the synagogue, as a way to protect the synagogue, is recommended. (See the attached addendum that contains greater detail on church-state issues.)
  • Again, each synagogue must decide for itself what kind of Pre-K program best meets its needs and the needs of its families and its community, but we do urge that wherever feasible a program with strong Jewish content be an option offered the families.

This letter is only a beginning. This is new territory for all of us, for our government, our congregations and our communities as a whole. We are fortunate to have a highly skilled, dedicated and talented team at the forefront of this development. The URJ Lifelong Learning, Early Childhood, and social justice specialists at the URJ and the staff at the URJ’s Religious Action Center are available at any time and will work in partnership with you to develop further guidelines and identify best practices as the Pre-K funding programs expand. Please do not hesitate to be in touch with Cathy Rolland, URJ Early Childhood Specialist (212-650-4111, crolland@urj.org), and Barbara Weinstein, RAC Legislative Director (202-387-2800, bweinstein@rac.org) for support and assistance in planning for the future.

Further, at the upcoming URJ Board of Trustees meeting, URJ Chair Peter Weidhorn will announce the appointment of a special taskforce comprised of leaders with expertise in Jewish education, education public policy and church-state law to continue to examine the challenges and opportunities of universal Pre-K funding and develop recommendations for the very real issues that our synagogues will face. The goal is to enable the growth of Jewish early childhood programs as a foundation for a lifetime of Jewish learning and living. We look forward to working with our schools and our synagogues in meeting this urgent and important challenge.

For more updated information including progress of the task force, consider joining the URJ early engagement networking group: www.urj.org/connect/network/

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