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

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Cincinnati Hebrew Day School attending a rally for school choice in front of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, April 10, 2013. (Agudath Israel)

Cincinnati Hebrew Day School students attending a rally for school choice in front of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, April 10, 2013. (Agudath Israel)

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 for the amount owed by his company 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 or 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.”

Tax credit programs are among the growing number of ways that private Jewish day schools and yeshivas nationwide are corralling hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer dollars annually. 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.

“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.”

The haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America long has taken the lead in lobbying for government aid for Jewish schools. Two years ago it was joined by the Orthodox Union, which began hiring political directors in a half-dozen states to organize Jewish schools and lobby legislators.

In New York, the state with the largest day school population, Agudath Israel and the O.U. have been joined in their lobbying efforts by an unusual coalition that includes UJA, the Sephardic Community Federation, the Jewish Education Project and Catholic groups.

While media attention has focused on the alleged abuse of government funding programs by Jewish schools, suspect allocations represent just a trickle of the government funding flowing to Jewish schools.

The methods used by private schools to get government money differ from state to state and range from the complex to the Byzantine.

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

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

Students and Staff of the Torah Day School of Atlanta standing on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol following a school choice rally, January 2012. (Agudath Israel)

Students and staff of the Torah Day School of Atlanta standing on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol following a school choice rally, January 2012. (David Kapenstein)

In New York, a lobbying effort two years ago resulted in legislation extending an exemption from a transportation payroll tax of 0.34 percent to private and religious schools — a seemingly small change, but one that saved 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 can run as high as $30,800 a year. “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, SAR has dedicated staffers whose job is to garner the government funds. They range from reimbursement for administering state exams and taking students’ attendance — state-mandated tasks for which New York Jewish schools received $42 million last year — to funds for security programs, textbooks, busing, health services, computer software, teacher training and small-group tutoring in various subjects.

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. Jewish federations, which once opposed government funding for parochial schools, are now trying to secure government support for them. Both the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Jewish Committee are reconsidering their long-held opposition to such funding.

Advocates and legislators holding a news conference in Albany, N.Y., on June 12, 2013 calling for a program offering reduced utility rates to be extended to parochial schools in the state. (Orthodox Union)

Advocates and legislators holding a news conference in Albany, N.Y., on June 12, 2013 calling for a program offering reduced utility rates to be extended to parochial schools in the state. (Orthodox Union)

“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 for 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, 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 school funding. A landmark Supreme Court decision in 2002 upholding parental rights to use government tuition vouchers at private religious schools helped pave the way for voucher and tuition tax credit programs in 23 states.

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, Providence’s two Jewish day schools were able to get nearly $400,000 of the $1 million pot. As awareness 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 the Providence Hebrew Day School. “With all these things, you have to know what’s coming to you and be on top of that.”

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