New York's Full Day, Pre-K Offer Proves Complex for Religious Schools

The city of New York recently agreed to fund full day, pre-kindergarten programs for religious schools in the city in an attempt to make more space for preschool attendance by Fall 2014. Multiple religious schools in the area have questioned the full-day funding, as it prohibits religious teaching from being taught during school hours.

The new policy, approved by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, extends the previous half-day prekindergarten programs at religious schools into a full day program funded by the government.

Previously, religious schools offered a half-day of secular prekindergarten funded by the government, contributing religious teaching to the latter part of the school day that they paid for using their own school funds.

Under de Blasio's new policy, religious schools may teach a full-day of secular prekindergarten using government funds, but they must reserve religious teaching for before or after school hours, when a conflict of separation of church vs. state does not occur.

According to the Wall Street Journal, some religious schools have opted out of de Blasio's offer, arguing that leaving religious teaching for the very end of the day would leave children tired and ready to go home. Instead, the schools that have chosen to reject the full-day funding will continue with a half day of secular teaching, followed by religious teaching, to keep the children's attention.

Some schools that have signed on to de Blasio's full-day plan understand the complexity of avoiding religious teaching material at a school where the majority of the children are of the same faith.

"If 100% of children in the classroom come from the same religious background, it creates a potential for doing religious activity," Elie Rubenstein, director of the Hebrew Educational Society, told the Wall Street Journal. "It might be hidden, so to speak, and you don't want that to happen."

In an attempt to recruit more religious schools to join his universal pre-k program, De Blasio has also allowed religious schools to hire teachers based on their religion "to the extent permitted by law," and use religious texts when "presented objectively."

De Blasio's agreement with local religious schools has angered groups such as the New York Civil Liberties Union, who argue that the local administration is violating the separation of church and state.

"We are deeply disappointed in the ill-advised retreat from the foundational principle of the separation between church and state," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman told the New York Daily News earlier in June.

"Yeshivas, temples, churches and madrasas have every right to teach religious education, but on their own dime — not with taxpayer money," Lieberman said. "This guidance is a green-light for city-funded discrimination based on religion."

According to SI Live, pre-k seats, both at public and religious institutions, have already begun to fill up as de Blasio makes a push for a universal prekindergarten program. The mayor is pushing for a universal prekindergarten program in an attempt to provide 53,000 open seats for preschool by this fall.