Testimony of Orthodox Union
In support of A.2810: Opportunity Scholarship Act
New Jersey Legislature, Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee
Trenton, NJ | February 3, 2011
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee:
The Talmud credits Joshua Ben Gamla, who created what may have been the world’s first public education system, with saving “Torah learning” from extinction. Why? Because he ensured the education of those children whose parents were unable to teach them. That is, he ensured the education of the most vulnerable in society. That, the Talmud teaches, is the true measure of educational excellence. Not that some have it, but all can.
It is this passion for children and their future that causes the Orthodox Union (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, representing hundreds of synagogues, rabbis and thousands of members nationwide, including 52 congregations across New Jersey, to respectfully submit this testimony in support of A.2810, the Opportunity Scholarship Act.
The Orthodox Union supports this legislation for three reasons.
It is indeed true that our support of A.2810 is in part parochial. Tuition at Jewish day schools is a strain for even middle class parents, let alone those of more modest means. These families sorely need a financial lifeline and deserve whatever constitutionally permissible aid the state can offer.
But this modest pilot program affects only a small number of communities with Orthodox Jewish populations. And our support for this legislation goes far beyond the limited number of Orthodox Jews who will be affected. Rather it is based on the Jewish ideal of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. Educating children is such a prime Jewish value that for two thousand years, not only did the Jewish people sacrifice for it, at times they risked their lives for it, even maintaining schools in Nazi ghettos and behind the Iron Curtain. Thankfully, no one in New Jersey faces such odds or risks, but neither should any of us be satisfied until every child, no matter where they live, has access to a quality education.
Moreover, beyond our values, we support this program because it is fiscally sound, as evidenced by the support of the Chair of this House’s Budget Committee, Assemblyman Greenwald, who noted it will “throw a lifeline to children trapped in chronically failing schools, giving them the chance to achieve their dreams.” That committee’s Vice Chair, Assemblyman Schaer has also said much the same in announcing his co-sponsorship of this legislation. Others, including George Norcross, Chairman of Cooper Health System, have noted the program’s projected savings to taxpayers in their statements of support.
But in the end, neither dollars nor cents matter if the program does not improve educational opportunity. We have every reason to believe that it will, as the Opportunity Scholarship Act is modeled on the successful tax credit program enacted in Pennsylvania, as well as existing programs in other states: Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, and Rhode Island.
We briefly note that some have raised constitutional questions regarding such programs. The Orthodox Jewish community, as a religious minority that has benefited from the protections of the First Amendment would never support legislation that threatened these freedoms. But Federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court have ruled time and again that private, even parochial schools can be provided with educational assistance so long that it is done on a neutral basis. The program before you easily meets this standard. New Jersey’s constitution does not contain a Blaine Amendment couching anti-Catholic bigotry in the language of the law. Besides being a point of pride for all New Jerseyans, lack of a Blaine Amendment means the Opportunity Scholarship Act does not violate the State’s constitution.
But in the end this is not about finances or constitutions. This legislation, in the end, is about helping children and families in need. Passing the Opportunity Scholarship Act will help ensure that all children in New Jersey get the education they deserve. For all the above reasons, the Orthodox Union and its thousands of families in New Jersey respectfully request an immediate and favorable report of A.2810.