Advocacy effort has Jewish schools reaping hundreds of millions in gov’t money

NEW YORK (JTA) – Each year when Frank Halper is faced with the state tax bill for his accounting business in Providence, R.I., he has a choice.

He can write a check to the State of Rhode Island for the amount his company owes or, as part of a state tax credit program, he can send a check to a foundation that provides tuition scholarships to students at Providence’s two Jewish day schools. His tax bill will be credited for 90 percent of the contribution.

For the last five years of so, his firm has opted for the latter.

“We’re in favor of supporting these schools,” Halper said. “We feel Jewish education is the future of the Jewish people.”

Last year, some $270,000 in tuition assistance went through the scholarship program to students at Providence’s Hebrew Day School and the Jewish Community Day School.

Tax credit programs are among the growing array of ways private Jewish day schools and yeshivas nationwide are corralling hundreds of millions of dollars per year of taxpayer dollars. The money is helping to defray operating costs, provide teacher training, assist students with tuition bills and enhance educational offerings.

A decade ago, few Jewish schools were aggressive about pursuing federal and state funding. But as day school tuition rates have climbed, outpacing inflation and the ability of recession-weary parents to pay, schools have become much more effective not only at accessing government money but in lobbying state government for more.

A concerted advocacy and awareness campaign is behind this transformation. The haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America long has taken the lead on lobbying for government aid for Jewish schools, but two years ago the Orthodox Union began hiring state political directors in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Texas and Florida to organize Jewish schools and lobby legislators.

“We see grassroots advocacy on this topic as doing what hasn’t been done in the past: to create collaborations among schools to share information,” said Maury Litwack, the OU’s director of state political affairs and outreach.

In New York, the state with the biggest day school population, the unusual coalition behind the lobbying effort involves not just Agudath Israel and the O.U., but UJA-Federation of New York, the Sephardic Community Federation, the Jewish Education Project and Catholic groups.

“The financial crisis of 2008 had a huge effect on tuition and affordability — I think that was really the game changer,” said Darcy Hirsh, director of day school advocacy at UJA-Federation of New York, which in October 2011 became the first federation in the country to create a position for day school advocacy. “Families that were able to afford day school are no longer able, and schools’ financial aid has grown tremendously over the last five years.”

While some media attention has focused on alleged abuse of certain government funding programs by Jewish schools (such as the N.Y. Jewish Week’s exposé on haredi Orthodox yeshivas obtaining millions of dollars from the federal E-Rate program for internet connectivity despite their denying students internet access), suspect allocations represent just a trickle of the government funding flowing to Jewish schools overall.

The ways that private schools get government money range from the complex to the byzantine, and they differ from state to state.

In Rhode Island, for example, the tuition scholarship program, which is available to kids from families whose income is less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, is capped at $1 million statewide and open only to corporate donors. Their tax credit is calculated at 75 percent for a single year, 90 percent if they donate for two, up to a maximum of $100,000 annually. The statewide cap is usually reached on July 1, the first day during the year that applications may be submitted.

In Florida, a similar program last year was capped at $229 million.

In New York, a lobbying effort two years ago paid off when the legislature passed a bill extending an exemption from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority payroll tax of 0.34 percent to private and religious schools – a seemingly small change but one that saved them an estimated $8 million per year.

“Figuring out how to do better at this is going to be one of the big keys to the whole tuition crisis,” said Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, principal of SAR Academy, a large Jewish day school in Riverdale, N.Y., where tuition and fees range from $22,000 in kindergarten to $46,000 in high school. “We’re looking to provide a quality education, Jewish and secular, and I think the solution will have to be to increase revenues. Government funding is going to need to be a major piece.”

Like many Jewish schools nowadays, SAR has dedicated staffers whose job it is to get government funds. They range from reimbursement for administering state exams and taking students’ attendance – tasks mandated by New York State and for which Jewish schools in the state got $42 million in reimbursements last year – to funds for security programs, textbooks, busing, student health services, computer software, teacher training workshops, and small-group tutoring in math, English and reading for eligible students.

Jewish schools in New York also have been able to secure some $300 million per year in therapy and counseling services for students with special needs, according to Martin Schloss, director of government relations at the Jewish Education Project. The money goes directly to pay for the services, not to the school’s bottom line: Outside professionals come to the school and work with students who have been deemed eligible by the Board of Education.

“Our schools are aggressive in terms of utilizing opportunities,” said Schloss, whose organization helps 300 day schools in New York secure government money. “We’re not asking for a penny more than we ought to be getting, but not a penny less either.”

Underlying the new advocacy effort is a shift in attitude among some mainstream Jewish organizations that once opposed government funding for parochial schools but recently have muted that opposition or are actively lobbying for change.

“We have appointed a committee to look again at our policy on religion — maybe to reaffirm, maybe to change,” said Marc D. Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, which historically has opposed government funding in parochial schools.

“Overall, the Jewish community has moved much closer to our side on this issue over the last few years,” said Rabbi A.D. Motzen, national director of state relations for Agudath Israel, which has been lobbying for government money in parochial schools since the 1960s.

In addition to financial pressures, a few other factors have fueled the day school advocacy effort.

The growing momentum of the so-called school choice movement in America, which aims to give parents more control over where and how their kids are educated on the government’s dime, has helped create more favorable conditions for private schools, including religious ones. A landmark Supreme Court decision in 2002 upholding parents’ rights under an Ohio program to use government tuition vouchers at private religious schools helped pave the way for voucher and tuition scholarship tax credit programs in 23 states. Jewish day school families have been among the beneficiaries.

But these programs are not available in many of the states with the biggest Jewish day school populations, including New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois and Massachusetts. Two notable exceptions are Florida and Pennsylvania.

After the Rhode Island program began in 2006, the two Providence Jewish day schools were able to get nearly $400,000 of the $1 million pot. As awareness of the program has grown, their share has fallen to about $270,000 — still a respectable sum in a state where Jews account for less than 2 percent of the population.

“By and large we’ve done fairly well in getting what we can,” said Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman, dean of Providence Hebrew Day School. “With all these things you have to know what’s coming to you and be on top of that.”