Pressing the Panic Button on Tuition

Posted on September 3, 2009 In Blog

On Tuesday, September 1, OU Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman spoke at a tuition symposium at a flagship OU member shul, Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, NJ. He was joined on the panel by our partners at Agudath Israel, ably represented by Josh Pruzansky. As well Rabbi Ari Zahtz, CBY’s assistant rabbi and Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz of Shaare Tefillah gave a Torah perspective on the issue. Kudos to the indefatigable initiators and movers behind the event, askanim and communal leaders, Yali Elkin and Avi Goldenberg. Here, Howie shares his thoughts on the event:

In our business, you don’t want to be the boy crying wolf. So it was a bit unusual for me to stand at a podium in a packed house and say “I’m here asking you to panic.”

But I did. Because we live in a world where if it isn’t a crisis, we just don’t give it our attention. Every Orthodox Jew knows our community is facing a tuition crisis. But I wanted to impress on our community that this is something that needs their full attention.

That’s not to say it will be easy but at the same time, daunting is not discouraging. In fact, with a problem as big as this, there are any number of things that will help so action is possible on several fronts at once. Or, as I said tongue in cheek, quoting a tough United States Marine, Chesty Puller, being surrounded simplifies the problem as you can shoot in any direction.

For me, rather than coming away discouraged, I was actually uplifted by the sight of hundreds of people turning out on a weeknight in the dog days of August. And as people listened to our presentations – in mine I spoke about the various ways to help raise funds for Jewish day schools culled from the OU’s experience and activism in states across the country and in our nation’s capital – you could see some shock, but also resolve to become active and hold candidates and elected officials accountable. There was even talk of forming (obviously separate from both the OU & Agudah) a Jewish education PAC to support those who support our community, much the way NORPAC and others do for pro-Israel lawmakers.

We talked about ways Jewish federations and foundations might help. And we discussed funding to schools for discrete projects, such as security, an area the OU has really been a leader in – including the nonprofit security grant program from the Department of Homeland Security – as well as expanding state mandates to provide more textbook, nursing, security and other funding – including restoring the $11 million in technology aid that New Jersey politicos inexplicably tore from the budget this year, despite a $700 million influx from the tax amnesty program.

But the “mother lode” was our discussion of tax credit programs. Both Josh and I discussed proposed legislation in New Jersey and how people could and should be more involved in helping the bill, S.1607, pass. It has the support of both the OU and the Agudah as well as the Black Ministers Council, the Latino Leadership Alliance and others. In the Legislature, it is sponsored by leaders in both parties, including Democrats – Senator Ray Lesniack of Elizabeth, state party chairman Assemblyman Joe Cryan, and Republicans Tom Kean, Jr., the Senate Minority Leader and Assemblyman Jay Webber, the Republican state chair. The bill, if enacted creates a corporate scholarship program like Pennsylvania has.

And part of my talk was to explain what other states, like Pennsylvania have done with such programs – how in state after state, they are bipartisan (for instance Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, formerly head of the Democratic National Committee, and Janet Napolitano, now President Obama’s Homeland Security secretary but then governor of Arizona expanded tax credit programs in their states. And the number three ranked member in the US Congress, Majority Whip Clyburn – behind only Speaker Pelosi and Steny Hoyer – supports credits. Senator Robert Ford of South Carolina became a convert after seeing a list of the Palmetto State’s failing public schools.). I also discussed how minority legislators increasingly support the bill. Besides Mr. Clyburn – the highest ranking African American in Congress – and Senator Ford, as Florida’s legislature expanded their state’s tax credit program this year, members of legislative Black Caucus signed on.

I also put to rest any lingering doubts on such programs constitutional muster. Being from the OU, I couldn’t resist pointing out the programs – in court case after court case – in state after state – have been upheld as constitutionally kosher. And being from New York I couldn’t resist quoting the late and much missed Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said you’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. I’m welcome to a debate of credits on the merits but a debate on their legality is over.

Finally, I was able to say I welcome a debate of the programs, because the programs work. In just three of the states that have them – Arizona, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania – they have raised in about a decade, over $25 million for Jewish day schools. Rhode Island, not known for its large and powerful Jewish community, raised a few years back $200,000. Phoenix has a scholarship organization under the Jewish federation that is one of the top 5 in the state. And they have just one hardworking staff member, keeping administrative costs way down and giving over the legal minimum in scholarships each year.

All this, without taking a dime from a state’s education budget. All, absolutely constitutional. And all, with the help of some very energized folks in New Jersey, something that we can replicate soon enough for struggling families across New Jersey.

If you’d like to help the OU’s public advocacy at the state levels in pressing government for more aid to parents and day schools, please send an email to
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