Testimony of the Orthodox Union
In Support of SB.1: Opportunity Scholarship & Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act
Pennsylvania General Assembly | House of Representatives | Democratic Policy Committee
Pittsburgh, PA | March 23, 2011
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee:
Jewish communities the world over will celebrate the Passover seder in just under a month. In home after home, the seder begins the very same way: one of the children present asks four questions. That is because the Jewish tradition is especially child centric. Concern for children – all children – leads the Orthodox Union (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America) to support SB.1. We are the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, representing hundreds of synagogues and thousands of members across North America, including right here in Pittsburgh but also across the Commonwealth: Allentown, Harrisburg and Greater Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania’s EITC program, once revolutionary, is now a nationally mimicked model. That’s because it works. EITC scholarships help moderate and middle-income families that struggle financially to send their child to the school best suited for them. SB.1 takes something that works and strengthens it.
Our community has seen that success across the Commonwealth and especially here in Pittsburgh, where the Jewish Federation has led a consortium of local Jewish day schools in an area scholarship fund that is helping parents and families in need each year since the program’s inception. In fact, EITC is the largest funding source for many Pennsylvania Jewish day schools and preschools – some 50 Jewish education programs overall.
But EITC does not pit public and nonpublic school communities one against the other. Public schools also raise millions of dollars in contributions from the business community.
That means in an era of shrinking budgets, EITC helps everyone. That is why it has served as a model for other states. It is why it and its sister programs across the country enjoy bi-partisan, bi-cameral support in this and other legislatures and why governors of both parties have supported these programs in their inception and expansion.
Jewish day schools across Pennsylvania have been able to open their doors to more children and keep more children in school even in trying economic times thanks to EITC.
As a community that has benefited from EITC and has seen both public and nonpublic schools and communities benefit from it, we strongly support both EITC’s expansion to $100 million as well as the stability of placing the program in the School Code.
SB.1 also creates a low-income scholarship program. We recognize that for some, this program is more controversial than EITC. However, we believe the program affords true opportunity to those who most need it: the most poor who are in the worst schools. We also believe that in a decade, the scholarships will be as uncontroversial as EITC is now.
We also note that not very many children from Orthodox Union communities would qualify for the opportunity scholarships. There are undoubtedly some, especially with the economy as is. But our support for opportunity scholarships is not based on our community’s gain. It is based on what is right and fair for every child and every family.
As we noted above, ours is a child-centered tradition. That tradition and that concern extend to each child and all families. For them, the Orthodox Union is proud to strongly support SB.1 and we look forward to working with this House to introduce a companion bill and with the entire Legislature and the Governor enact these changes to help children across the Commonwealth.
Howie Beigelman, Deputy Director of Public Policy
Support for Choice Means Results
The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, February 03, 2011
Everyone knows the Orthodox community supports school reform for “parochial” reasons — the strain on our household budgets from multiple tuitions at Jewish day school.
But Orthodox support is about far more. It’s about Jewish values. The poor and near poor in our society are trapped in failing schools. That’s not right or fair.
That was also the message of 900 students — many from minority communities or from failing school districts — with whom I and others, including students from Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station joined in Harrisburg last week to lobby for school choice.
Our community proudly remembers marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and rightly boasts of standing up for the needy and oppressed — even a world away. But there’s a civil rights issue right here at home. Education is the most critical civil rights issue, the most burning social justice question, of the 21st century.
Ensuring that every child, regardless of zip code or parent’s income, accesses a quality education shouldn’t be controversial. And it no longer is. In our hyper-partisan era, education reform has liberals and conservatives agreeing. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch and President Ronald Reagan agreed decades ago. Today President Barack Obama, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, and Mayors Michael Bloomberg of New York and Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles agree.
The Orthodox Union supports school reform and choice in all forms — charters, public choice and government funding (in constitutionally permissible ways) of private — even parochial — schools, including scholarships, tax credits and vouchers.
This support is based on deeply Jewish values– education and social justice. Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, writes, “Our citadels are schools, our passion, education, and our greatest heroes, teachers.” The prophets long ago beat into our national psyche the Torah’s charge to be a light unto the nations, act justly and help the poor. As Jews who care as we do about tikkun olam, forcing children in failing schools is anathema.
Moreover, the Jewish community’s experiences prove that government funding can support critical needs through nonprofit or private providers delivering results. Tax dollars fund Jewish federation hospitals, day care, senior facilities, soup kitchens, food pantries and more. Why shouldn’t government also support all secular K-12 education?
Some say that choice violates the U.S. Constitution.
Thirty-nine state constitutions, including Pennsylvania’s, have a religious “no aid” provision, or Blaine amendment. (Congressman James Blaine fueled his 19th century run for the presidency with anti-Catholic bigotry that hoped to amend the U.S. Constitution to bar public funding of sectarian — read Catholic — institutions. Although his effort to amend the U.S. Constitution failed, many individual states took on the measure.
However, most aid programs are crafted to stand up to scrutiny under the Blaine amendment, including Pennsylvania’s EITC program that raises millions for Jewish education.
And the federal courts have ruled that neutrally crafted choice programs that include religious schools are constitutionally kosher and well within the boundaries of vigorous first amendment protections promoting religious liberty
So the question isn’t a now long-settled legal one, but a policy one: Is school choice and reform good policy?
Some suggest the results are unproven. But the research is in. These reforms work.
Professor Paul E. Peterson, who directs Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, (no conservative bastion) recently wrote on the Education Next blog that study after study shows us “that schools of choice are compiling a consistently better record than that of traditional public schools.”
Sure, we who care about Jewish education, days schools and continuity will likely support constitutionally permitted choice. But all who care about creating a fairer, more equal society for every child must advocate for education reforms that have results today.
Howie Beigelman is the Orthodox Union’s Deputy Director of Public Policy, responsible for the group’s state government affairs nationally.