Testimony to the Pennsylvania Senate Committee on Education

Posted on October 15, 2010

Testimony of the Orthodox Union
Pennsylvania Senate | Committee on Education
Harrisburg, PA |October 13, 2010

Chairman Piccola, Members of the Committee:

It is no accident the Jewish People are known as the “People of the Book.” Under the Roman’s scathing whip, the Nazi’s deadly boot and the Communist’s watchful eye, Jewish communities risked their lives to educate children. They established schools in ghettos, displaced persons camps and behind the Iron Curtain. With this history, the Orthodox Union, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, representing member synagogues and Orthodox communities across the Commonwealth, including Allentown, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, is pleased to submit this testimony in support of education reform and choice.

Before discussing specific programs or policies, we believe it imperative to state two introductory points. The first is that the OU is proudly supportive of public education, and we believe every public school should be excellent. However, we also believe that school choice or reform efforts need not pit public or private schools against each other.

As a model, we point the Committee and the Legislature to the Education Improvement Tax Credit program of which Senator Piccola is an original sponsor. This program allows both public and nonpublic schools to partner with the business community and to raise funds for education. Several other states have followed Pennsylvania’s lead and created similar programs. Besides providing choice for students and families in need, these programs help families struggling financially keep their children in a nonpublic school. Were they to be forced to put their children in a public school the cost to the state and locality would far outweigh the current cost from the EITC credits.

The Orthodox Union believes the EITC program should be maintained, and if possible expanded.

In addition, some states provide a personal tax credit or deduction either for education expenses of one’s own child or for a scholarship program similar to EITC. Notably, Arizona has both a corporate and personal tax credit programs. Minnesota and Louisiana have tax deductions.

The Orthodox Union supports enactment of personal credits and deductions available to offset education expenses of both public and nonpublic school students. Public school students could use such programs to defray tutoring, SAT prep or other costs while those in nonpublic schools could offset tuition.

Pennsylvania already provides certain services directly to students – such as bus transportation and special education services. This is both fair and constitutional. The Legislature should study other areas where such direct services could be constitutionally provided to schools and/or students. We would urge all services and programs available to public schools be made available as well to nonpublic schools.

Finally, the committee has asked whether we would support a voucher or scholarship program and what our experience has been with such programs.

As the committee is no doubt aware, there are several scholarship programs available across the nation, some being privately funded, such as the Children’s Scholarship Fund and some publicly funded such as the DC Scholarship program. In addition, some are available to all students while some focus on special needs students. If the state and localities are not providing a full complement of special needs services, costs at a nonpublic school can be as much as $40,000 each year.

Our experience in other communities across the nation is that scholarship programs work. The Orthodox Union vigorously supports creation of a program here in Pennsylvania.

We do this for those in our own community who are of lower and moderate income who struggle to afford tuition at a Jewish day school. We also do it for all of Pennsylvania’s children. The lion’s share of scholarships will go to students of a different faith than ours – or to those with no faith at all.

For them, especially for those trapped in failing schools in urban or rural areas, we support such a program as a way to help them today. Because even if we had a silver bullet that would solve the public education crisis, the students already in our schools cannot wait even one more day.

That is not a political issue, or even a fiscal one. It is a moral issue and a civil rights one. Recently, I had the opportunity to tour three schools in West Philadelphia. One, West Philadelphia Catholic is parochial. Another, West Philadelphia High is a traditional public school. The third, Boy’s Latin, is a public charter school. The student body is essentially the same demographic and in each, the teacher’s are trying their very best. But two of those schools are succeeding far more than the other. And we need to replicate those successes.

Not to score political points. But to help children. Lord Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. He has written that for the Jewish people, schools are our citadels, teacher’s our greatest heroes, and our greatest value, education. That is why, the Jewish people risked death – and taunted death – in the greatest depths of hell on earth to ensure their children had an education.

Today, in 21st Century America, every one of our children deserves no less. We urge the Legislature to do all it can to ensure that, and we at the Orthodox Union, on behalf of our communities, synagogues, and rabbis here in Pennsylvania and across North America stand ready to work with you to make it so.

Thank you.

Howie Beigelman
Deputy Director of Public Policy
Orthodox Union