Home inFocus Ideas for a New Congress (Winter 2015) School Choice Policy Impact on the Jewish Community

School Choice Policy Impact on the Jewish Community

Maury Litwack Winter 2015

According to the AVI CHAI Foundation’s recently released Jewish Day School Census, the number of students enrolled in Jewish day schools across America is growing at an extraordinary rate. In 2003, 205,035 students across the country attended a Jewish day school. Just 10 years later, that number had climbed to 254,749 and is projected to grow to more than 300,000 by 2018. In fact, national Jewish day school enrollment now exceeds public school enrollment in 11 states, including New Hampshire, Rhode Island and South Dakota, and the District of Columbia. But with this explosive growth also comes several challenges: school administrators must accommodate the rising enrollment while facing mounting costs and parents must pay the ever-increasing cost of Jewish day school tuition. In some states, tuition can be as high as $30,000 per child, while in states with a lower cost of living the cost may be “only” $10,000 or $15,000 per child. Jewish education is not a luxury expense but rather a necessity for parents seeking to provide a Jewish foundation for their child.

As tuition prices for Jewish day schools rise, parents are often forced to choose between providing their children with a Jewish education or keeping their families financially stable. This financial crush has many names within the Jewish community: “tuition crisis,” “tuition crunch,” and “pricing out parents” are just a few. Numerous studies and meetings have been held within the Jewish community to talk about how to stabilize the cost of Jewish education. A solution must be found. The increasing population growth coupled with the mounting cost of tuition is not tenable for the future of Jewish education. Moreover, if Jewish day schools are out of reach for more and more parents, they will enroll their children in public schools — most of which likely lack the capacity for such an influx.

Here is where the rise of school choice can have a significant impact within the Jewish community — as a means for increased government funding that can serve as a financial foundation for Jewish education.

More Than Vouchers

School choice is loosely understood as giving parents the freedom to choose the best education for their children. Vouchers are reflexively viewed as the traditional way to provide this school choice, with parents receiving a certificate of funding that they can carry to the school of their choice. While vouchers are successful in a few states, it is hardly the only form of school choice. In fact, for the Jewish community, I would consider school choice to be much broader and more expansive. I would argue that any government funding program that helps subsidize Jewish schools and/or support Jewish education — such as funding for services, direct funding to a school, tax credits or scholarship assistance — should fall under the definition of school choice for Jewish education. Within this framework, the school choice opportunities to address the “tuition crisis” are many.

One of the most impactful school choice opportunities for Jewish education has not been vouchers but rather, educational tax credit programs. Under an educational tax credit program, individuals and corporations can allocate a predetermined amount of their owed state taxes to scholarship funds, which then grant financial aid to families with students in grades K-12. These programs can provide millions of dollars in scholarships to families and real lifelines for Jewish day schools. And — if enough students enroll in non-public schools through the help of these tax credit programs — states can actually recoup the money lost in owed taxes, as they will be saving on the cost of educating students in the public school system. Since 2012, seven new educational tax credit programs have been enacted in states as politically diverse as Arizona, with a Republican governor and state legislature, and New Hampshire, with a Democratic governor and House of Representatives.

Last year alone, Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program provided more than $286 million in scholarships for Florida families with $8.2 million going toward scholarships for Florida Jewish day schools. Pennsylvania’s two educational tax credit programs unlocked $65 million in funds for families across the state, with $10 million going toward scholarships for Pennsylvania Jewish day schools. For some Jewish day schools in Pennsylvania, as much as 40 percent of their student body receives scholarships through the Commonwealth’s educational tax credit programs.

Beyond educational tax credit programs, however, other funding opportunities exist that have the potential to provide anywhere from tens of thousands to tens of millions of dollars for Jewish day schools. Included among these opportunities are funding for security improvements, technology upgrades, transportation, universal pre-Kindergarten, and nursing aid — which can add up and have a significant impact on a school’s bottom line.

OU Advocacy’s work led to several victories on the state level for non-public education funding. In New Jersey, OU Advocacy successfully pushed for the state to fund every non-public school $70 per student for nursing services — amounting to more than $2.7 million for the state’s Jewish day schools if every Jewish day school were to apply for these services. In Maryland, intense efforts succeeded in finally bringing state-subsidized busing to Montgomery County Jewish day schools in a groundbreaking pilot program. The program was a “win” for the schools, parents and the state by saving schools thousands of dollars, saving parents the money and time that would otherwise have been spent on carpools and traffic jams, and helping the state alleviate traffic congestion by removing cars from the road during peak hours. In Pennsylvania, Jewish schools became eligible to receive a School Police Officer Grant, which provides $40,000 per school to hire security guards. And in New York, OU Advocacy advocated for non-public schools in Albany, securing $83 million for New York Jewish day schools for this school year. Of that figure, nearly $50 million is earmarked for reimbursements for compliance with the state’s anti-truancy program and mandated services.

Creative Policy Changes

But school choice does not need to be exclusively about funding. It can be a matter of transforming policy. Last year, a coalition campaign brought about sweeping changes in the way New York City addresses the needs of the special needs community. Working with both state and city legislators, the OU successfully advocated for new legislation that drastically reduced the New York City Department of Education’s ability to block placements in non-public schools for students with special needs whose Individualized Education Plans recommended a non-public school environment. The new legislation also provides much-needed stability for the children and financial certainty for parents. Without aggressive advocacy, these students would have been stuck in a school system that refused to admit it was incapable of meeting their educational and medical needs. Although this isn’t a check to a Jewish day school, the policy changes provide more options and educational choice to Jewish students with special needs.

School choice is also ever present at the ballot box. This past Election Day brought with it good news for the Jewish day school community. Candidates who campaigned proudly and openly on the issue of government funding for non-public education, such as Bruce Rauner of Illinois and Larry Hogan of Maryland, won gubernatorial races. This year’s elections also proved that school choice need not be a partisan issue. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York won reelection by 14 percentage points while still pledging to work for the passage of an Education Investment Tax Credit program. Such a program could bring transformative funding to New York Jewish day schools and enable thousands more Jewish students across the state to receive a Jewish education. In addition, New York voters demonstrated that they support creative means for helping our schools by approving the Smart Schools Bond Act with more than 61 percent of the vote. The Smart School Bond Act can potentially unlock up to $38 million for New York Jewish day schools for technology equipment and upgrades.

The political climate is undeniably changing. School choice legislation now exists in 19 states across the country, as well as in Washington, D.C. To keep this momentum moving forward, we must continue to advocate for non-public schools with city, state and federal legislators. And we must show our support at the polls for those candidates and policies that promote school choice.

While we have made significant and substantial progress over the past few years, we can — and must — keep up the fight for school choice. From both a funding and a policy perspective, school choice can be a game-changer for the future of Jewish education.

Maury Litwack is Director of State Political Affairs for the Orthodox Union. In this position, he heads up a state-by-state plan for political action and advocacy with a principal focus on seeking greater government support for Jewish day schools and their families.