This piece was originally published in The Jewish Press on December 26, 2011.
It can’t be emphasized enough how important grassroots involvement is to political action. Serious unified support can impact the tuition crisis by making our community and its school choice allies an impenetrable voting bloc that must be listened to and that demands consistent results. How we get to “unified” is a challenge.
When I was on the receiving end of advocacy in the educational world, it always came from one source: the teachers unions. I worked for congressmen who weren’t particularly close to these unions but we didn’t ignore them. How could we? Principals, school board members and teachers are a loud and unified voice that an elected official feared annoying, due to the potentially organized and vocal response they’d get in return. Our community has a long way to go to achieve this type of political unity.
Part of the problem is information. We know we want an elected official to support our schools but we don’t know what to ask. In the coming columns I hope to articulate some of this missing information. But even if we know what we want, the voices of support are in two different camps: schools and parents.
Schools can receive a host of funding on the federal, state or local level. Federal funding, such as the approximately $75,000 a school can receive from Urban Areas Security Initiative grants, is only the beginning. State funding, in the way of energy efficiency funding for a new HVAC system or local funding for textbooks or other school supplies, is another source of revenue intake that can aid a school’s budget.
Parents can directly access funding opportunities as well. Depending on where you live, they can come in the form of a tax credit or voucher. Vouchers are available in certain states based on income level and could be accessible in larger states such as Texas or Florida in the next few years. Corporate scholarship tax credit programs have made scholarships available to schools in Pennsylvania and Florida, and are awaiting decisions by legislatures in states like New Jersey and Maryland.
But the school funding doesn’t necessarily excite the parental body and the parental funding doesn’t necessarily excite the school leadership. Although the goals are the same, namely lowering the cost of Jewish education through government funding, each party will often take a different approach to this goal. Parents are frequently not excited about direct infrastructure funding even though it may prevent a tuition increase, as building costs are lowered as a result. Similarly, schools can’t wait around for a scholarship tax credit program or vouchers, items that often take a few years, when they have the potential to advocate on existing grant funding that helps them balance the budget today but is not a game changer to a parent.
These differing goals on the advocacy front force our community into a challenging situation before friendly elected officials who want to help. If a school is coming to back its view and a group of parents are coming to support theirs, how can a legislator seriously consider such different requests from what is a comparatively small group of constituents?
Public schools are able to walk and chew gum at the same time. A school superintendent has different goals than a group of public school teachers, but they are united on the overall goal of maximum funding for public schools and complete opposition to private school funding. We, too, must craft unity built on an understanding that funding that goes to any stream of Jewish education will aid everything else we seek. The goal is government funding opportunities for Jewish education. Once that goal resonates with legislators as a unified position, other opportunities will follow.
This is like any good lobbying entity. Being “pro-Israel” is an often-used phrase, and many groups and individuals define its meaning differently. When I meet with legislators, they tell me they are “pro-Israel,” but what that means for them on a dozen specific details is unknown. However, they know that the unified majority of Jewish voices are pro-Israel, and that’s where they want to be on the issue. Political realities such as who controls what legislative body and what the political climate is for getting things done are factors that impact what a unified lobby actually receives.
Schools and parents must share united goals vis-à-vis government funding for Jewish education. That at least puts us on the chessboard to decide what our next move will be.
Maury Litwack is the director of political affairs for the Orthodox Union. Prior to his work with the OU, he served on the government advocacy team of Miami-Dade County, one of the largest counties in the country.