March: The Moment For Change In Jewish Education Funding

March 13, 2014

This piece was published originally in The Jewish Press and is reprinted with its permission.

 

People always ask me: when are things going to change for Jewish education funding? And my answer is: now.

Or at least that’s the potential.

By the April 1 budget deadline, the powers that be in Albany will agree on the final framework for a new program of statewide universal pre-k (UPK); potentially enact a first-ever education investment tax credit; and determine what amount, if any, of additional funding private schools will see for the Comprehensive Attendance Police (CAP) and Mandated Services Reimbursement (MSR) programs – two state initiatives that provide funding for anti-truancy programs and mandated services required by private schools.

In addition, the budget could contain school security funding and an educational technology bond.

Each of these funding opportunities individually would be a major help to schools, parents, and kids. Governor Cuomo’s security proposal alone is at $4.5 million. If approved, his Smart Schools initiative, ensuring that schools have the cutting edge technology they need, is valued at $2 billion. And while last year’s CAP and MSR reimbursements were increased by $14 million, should the state repay the full $226 million it owes to private schools for the years these two programs were underfunded, we estimate that more than $75 million would be allocated to Jewish day schools.

Make no mistake: the potential here is enormous. If all of these budget items are approved, they could be a game changer for Jewish day schools and their budgets.

Other states that have enacted universal pre-k (such as neighboring New Jersey) and tax credit programs (for example, Florida and Pennsylvania) have included private schools, including faith-based schools, in the mix, leading to tens of millions of dollars for Jewish education. And the potential in New York dwarfs nearly everything we have seen in other states. Recognizing the cost of living issues affecting those in the greater New York City area, the proposed income limit on this program is higher than those in other states, thus allowing even more families to benefit.

Here in New York, there is no constitutional or legal bar to these programs benefiting Jewish day schools. There is no good policy impediment either. Jewish day schools deserve help in putting the best technology to work for their students. Every student and teacher should be safe at school. And as the state imposes requirements on private schools to do certain things, the state ought to pay for those requirements, in a fair and timely manner.

In addition, there’s no reason to deny the benefits of UPK to a student just because he or she is at a faith-based school. And an education tax credit should benefit any school and every student.

Which means it will come down to politics.

In partnership with local communities and individual day schools, OU Advocacy-Teach NYS, which advocates on behalf of New York Jewish day schools, has moved the political needle in a significant way. Through its Schools in Session program, OU Advocacy-Teach NYS has brought 20 elected officials to 15 schools in communities throughout the state.

Those elected officials see our schools, they meet our students, and they become aware – sometimes painfully so – of our schools’ needs. And those visits aren’t confined to greater New York City. They’ve taken place from Buffalo to Babylon and from Ellenville to East Williston.

That’s important, because we will need every vote, every champion, and every ally to pass these budget items. And we can’t let people think this is a city-only issue.

While it’s critical for our elected officials to visit us, in politics it’s even more important that we go see them.

That’s why OU Advocacy-Teach NYS, together with our coalition partners, is ramping up our mission program.

We have launched a series of “mini-missions” that brings small groups of synagogue, day school and community lay leaders to Albany. These mini-missions, from Long Island, the five boroughs, and upstate and every corner of the state, are reinforcing the message our legislators learned from the Schools-in-Session initiative.

Relationships and ongoing contact make a difference. In fact, many legislators we met with during our first mission from the Five Towns encouraged us to keep up the pressure and continue to reach out to them between now and the end of March, to remind them how important funding for non-public schools is to our community.

When legislators hear from us, you can be sure their leadership – those negotiating this budget – hears from them.

In the next few weeks, as all these elements come together, an entirely new chapter may well be written for Jewish day schools.

It isn’t often that decisions made over a few short weeks influence entire generations. But for those who care about Jewish day schools, now is the time.

Get on the phone, join a mission, or attend a rally. Better yet, do all three. Demonstrate to your legislators how important Jewish education is to you and the community overall.

Do it now. And make a real difference for Jewish day schools.