Testimony of Orthodox Union In support of S.1872: Opportunity Scholarship Act

Posted on January 28, 2011 In No categories

Testimony of Orthodox Union
In support of S.1872: Opportunity Scholarship Act
New Jersey Legislature, Senate Budget & Appropriations Committee
Trenton, NJ | January 20, 2010

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee:

Recently in synagogue we have read the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Pharaoh, ready to relent, perplexingly asks, “Who will go with you?” Moses responds, “Both our children and our elders must go.” This showcases the Jewish people’s concern for children and their future. What was the point of freedom if their children lacked it?

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 S.1872, the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

It is indeed true that our support of S.1872 is in part parochial. Tuition at Jewish day schools stretch and stress even middle class parents, let alone those of more modest means, those between jobs or those earning below their ability. These families all deserve whatever constitutionally permissible aid the state can offer.

The courts have ruled time and again that tax credits are constitutional.

The only question that remains is: Are tax credits effective policy?

The overwhelming evidence is that they are incredibly effective. 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.

It is our hope that New Jersey will be the next state to enact a similar tax credit program.

This program should be enacted for its fiscal savings alone. By way of example, in Florida, a nonpartisan legislative study found their tax credit programs saving the state $1.49 for every dollar of the tax credit. In our neighboring Pennsylvania the program has been so successful that it has be expanded to include pre-k. In Indiana, a program very much like the one before you was enacted as a cost savings measure during the height of the economic downturn.

But more than saving money for the state and more than helping parents of nonpublic school students, this program and legislation is tied directly to the Jewish ideal of helping others in need.

At the Democratic National Convention in 2008, our executive vice president emeritus, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, himself a former supervising school psychologist for the Montgomery County, Maryland school district, explained the thought provoking story of the Talmudic scholar Hillel the Elder: Hillel was asked to teach the entire Jewish faith “on one foot.” Without skipping a beat, Hillel eruditely answered, “What is distasteful to you, do not do unto others.” Rabbi Weinreb explained this means more than not acting badly to others but to proactively create, fund and find for others that which we value for ourselves and our families. In our faith we call this Tikkun Olam or repairing the world and if we value a good education for our own children, we can’t be satisfied until every child, regardless of their religion, has one too.

Governor Christie said something similar when noting his support of this legislation: New Jersey’s children deserve to get the very best education, no matter where they live. The prime sponsors of this legislation, Senators Lesniak, Kean and Kyrillos have said much the same. Chairman Greenwald of the Assembly Budget Committee is the latest legislative leader to support this program, noting that it will “throw a lifeline to children trapped in chronically failing schools, giving them the chance to achieve their dreams.” Moreover, his support indicates the program, a modest pilot, is fiscally sound.

On that note, nonpublic schools, whether faith based or secular, save New Jersey taxpayers $2.75 billion each year, and educate over 170,000 students. If these schools close, the cost of educating them and of building and maintaining the needed classroom space falls to an already cash-strapped state. Stabilizing the nonpublic school enrollment, especially in this budget climate, is a critical public need.

But in the end, we all need our public schools to be the best they can be. Yet there are children in this state, in 2011, in failing schools. Anyone who does not believe this, we urge you to visit those schools, and then to visit a local nonpublic school nearby that has the same student population. This legislation, in the end, is about helping children in need.

Passing the Opportunity Scholarship Act will help ensure that all children in New Jersey get the education they rightly deserve. The Orthodox Union and its thousands of families in New Jersey respectfully request an immediate and favorable report of S.1872.

Thank you.

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Orthodox Union
Rafi Katz
Legislative Fellow