Education Secretary Betsy DeVos praised Orthodox Jewish schools as a model for publicly funded education.
“I applaud Agudath Israel for their leadership and commitment to providing their community with access to educational options that meet the academic and religious needs of their families,” she said on Wednesday, March 8th after meeting with leaders of the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America at the Department of Education in Washington.
As a philanthropist who backed public funding for private education, DeVos had worked closely for years with Agudah and other Orthodox Jewish groups.
Secular and more liberal Jewish streams oppose programs like vouchers for private schools, in part to protect church-state separation, and because they argue that it diminishes funding and resources for public schools.
According to a statement issued by the Agudath Israel, Secretary DeVos demonstrated that she was very familiar with the people and policies of the leading Orthodox Jewish organization and many participants pointed to that meeting as the highlight of their visit to the nation's capital.
Rather than delivering a speech, Secretary DeVos engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with the group on topics such as school choice, special education, security, and the unique higher education issues faced by rabbinical colleges. Throughout the discussion, Secretary DeVos listened intently, asked pertinent questions and expressed her commitment to focus on policies that best serve students.
"I was very encouraged by her genuine interest in understanding the issues we raised and her commitment to taking our concerns into account when developing policy," reflected the chairman of Agudath Israel of California, Dr. Irving Lebovics, who brought up issues related to students with special needs.
Secretary DeVos was thanked by Agudath Israel's national director of state relations, Rabbi A. D. Motzen, for her leadership role in the hundreds of millions of scholarship dollars currently going to students attending the private school of their choice in more than twenty five states. Agudath Israel's leadership expressed its strong support of President Trump's pledge to provide $20 billion for school choice and offered to work with the administration and Congress to enact a meaningful program.
"The meeting with Secretary DeVos was quite unique and deeply gratifying," said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel's vice president for federal affairs and Washington director and counsel. "The Secretary has an impressive familiarity with our community and the educational challenges we face. For an entire hour, she was fully engaged in discussing possible avenues to addressing those challenges. It was a meaningful dialogue that I am confident will bear fruit over the months and years ahead."
Mr. Shlomo Werdiger, chairman of Agudath Israel's board of trustees, summed up the feelings of his fellow board members. "It was clear to everyone that we have a true friend in the Department of Education."
After the meeting, Secretary DeVos issued the following statement:
"I look forward to continuing to work with Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Jewish community and all supporters of school choice who believe that every child, regardless of where they live or their family's income, should have an equal opportunity to a quality education."