Aug. 25, 2014

WASHINGTON (CNS) - The new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, has recently begun a big and well-financed push for universal prekindergarten education. The mayor's goal is to offer 53,000 full-day seats by September and more than 70,000 by next year.

The problem is that the city's public schools don't have even half the seats they need. The effort is going to require a lot of help from private schools. That's not necessarily a bad thing. A public-private partnership could have a lot of potential. The Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn have offered 1,700 new seats. The New York Times reports that Orthodox Jewish schools educate some 8,000 4-year-olds. The city proposes to pay participating schools a tuition of $10,000 per student. But here's the rub: The city has issued rules about how religious schools must conduct their business if they want to participate.

The rules are stringent enough that they would definitely change the way parochial schools and yeshivas are run. For example, unless it is impracticable, schools would be required to remove or cover up religious signs, names and symbols at the school entrance, and also in classrooms and other areas where the pre-K students are taught. The application of these rules could become arbitrary, if the comments of the mayor's counsel are any indication. His counsel said that a mezuzah on a doorway would be OK if it was small -- but maybe not if it had a Star of David on it. It would depend on the size of the star, she said. If small, it would be OK. Religious instruction would be forbidden. Schools could use the Bible in class, but it would have to be presented "objectively as part of a secular program of instruction." Lessons can focus on "characters and events in a story and cultural connections." (Imagine explaining to a 4-year-old that the Resurrection is an important story with enormous cultural ramifications.) Schools must not call for prayers either, though the city's guidance generously allows that staff "need not prevent students" from praying on their own. The city is serious about enforcing these rules. It has hired 30 new staffers who will make at least two site visits a year to check on the schools that participate.

Of course, no school has to participate, and the rules could be worse. But they seem silly and hostile to the identity of institutions whose cooperation the city needs. Should we really fear what effect a crucifix, a menorah or a sign saying "Welcome to St. Francis School" will have on 4-year-olds? The rules also present an unnecessary temptation to cash-starved religious schools to forget who they are. The First Amendment forbids the kind of established churches our European forebears had, so we are rightly wary of spending public money to support the practice of religion. But struggling parochial schools -- many of which already serve students who cannot pay -- will be tempted to trade their faith for $10,000 per student.

The program reminds me of the Adrian Lyne film "Indecent Proposal," where a billionaire offers a happily married woman $1 million to spend the night with him. Even if all parties are acting voluntarily, it's wrong to make offers like that. There is an easier solution. Why not give parents the $10,000, and let them buy a year of prekindergarten? That would respect the principle of disestablishment in the same way the GI Bill does. The government makes no choice for or against religion -- the recipient makes that choice. Parents would be happy. Kids would be well educated. Catholic schools and yeshivas could keep being themselves. And New York City can get all the benefits of universal pre-K without making indecent proposals.