Teach NYS Delivers Historic Win for Jewish Schools

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04 May 2017

Everywhere from Shabbos tables to PTA meetings, Jewish parents have grumbled for decades about the “tuition crisis”—the problem of sky-high tuition at private Jewish day schools. The search for the elusive solution has bewildered many communities.

Teach NYS and its parent organization, the Orthodox Union, are starting to chip away at the problem. Teach NYS started four years ago with the goal of fighting for fair funding for nonpublic schools. The inequity in education funding is stark: Nonpublic school students in New York make up 16 percent of the student population, but receive less than two percent of state education funds.

To maximize its impact, Teach NYS opted for a new paradigm, borrowing strategies from major trade associations and corporations. The OU hired lobbyists in Albany and partnered with Jewish day schools, parents, lay leaders, and volunteers across New York. They organized meetings with legislators, hosted informational meetings in Jewish communities, brought legislators to Jewish schools to give them on-the-ground understanding, and arranged grassroots missions to Albany.

“We all pay school taxes because we want to make sure all children have access to a good education,” said Cal Nathan, a HAFTR parent and Teach NYS board member. “But that should apply no matter what kind of school a child attends. Doesn’t every child have a right to the same top-notch math and science education? Doesn’t every child deserve to go to school in a safe environment?”

Elected officials in Albany are listening. Over the past four years, Teach NYS has steadily increased government funding for nonpublic schools. Before Teach NYS started four years ago, nonpublic schools received approximately $110 million from New York State. In this year’s budget, legislators allocated nearly $300 million to nonpublic schools, including Jewish day schools and yeshivas.

This year’s budget battle set the stage for historic achievements. While Jews across New York were searching their homes for chametz on the eve of erev Pesach, the New York legislature and Governor Cuomo passed and signed a groundbreaking budget that allocates a record-setting $40 million in security funding to nonpublic schools.

This security funding demonstrates just how much progress Teach NYS has made in only four years. Before 2013, New York nonpublic schools received zero dollars for security purposes. In 2013, Teach NYS advocated for a modest $4.5 million for this purpose. This number grew to $15 million last year, and now a record-breaking $40 million in this year’s budget—the largest security allocation for nonpublic schools in the country.

This wasn’t the only historic breakthrough this year. The $300 million in state funding includes money to begin to reimburse nonpublic schools for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers. For the first time in the history of the Empire State, the legislature made a conscious decision to invest directly in the education of all children—including nonpublic-school students in Jewish day schools and yeshivas.

“This year’s budget is a groundbreaking achievement for the New York Jewish community,” said Allen Fagin, Executive Vice President. “While the initial STEM funding is a relatively small piece of the $300 million victory, it represents a tremendous shift in how New York State invests in nonpublic schools, including our Jewish day schools. If we continue down this path, we will make a real difference for Jewish families in day school affordability.”

Teach NYS worked closely with Governor Cuomo’s office and legislative leaders in Albany to make this historic budget a reality. One of the program’s biggest backers is Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who represents parts of Suffolk County. “The STEM funding is a huge victory for everyone who cares about education,” Senator Flanagan said. “It’s a recognition that New York has a vested interest in making sure all children have the educational opportunities for success.”

For school principals and administrators, working with Teach NYS has been a transformative experience.

“Our school has been working with Teach NYS for a couple of years, and they have changed the way the Jewish community fights for our schools,” said Rabbi Perry Tirschwell, executive director at Shulamith School for Girls. “Hiring quality math and science teachers is a tremendous expense, but a critical part of preparing our students for the future. Growing the STEM program and eradicating the inequity in education funding will be a game-changer.”

For Teach NYS and the OU, this historic budget is not the end, but a solid beginning.

“We are in this for the long game,” added Maury Litwack, executive director of Teach NYS and the larger Teach Advocacy Network. “This is a comprehensive strategy to impress upon legislators the importance of our nonpublic schools and the fundamental inequity in the way education funding is allocated in this state. The STEM and security programs are just the beginning.”