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Op-Ed: Time to give day school parents a break

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looksteinMAMARONECK, N.Y. (JTA) — This fall, the school that I head brought dozens of its students to join 5,000 others at a rally in our county in support of smart legislation to boost education in New York State.

But this is no local story: If successful, our effort will have far-reaching consequences for the future of Jewish life across America.

In my first months as head of Westchester Day School and in my career as a rabbi, educator and community professional, I often have heard from parents who struggle to pay their kids’ day school tuition even while they contribute toward scholarships that support others’ children.

These are parents whose salaries otherwise would entitle them to a comfortable financial cushion. Instead, they effectively live paycheck to paycheck. Parents with this kind of dedication to the Jewish future merit a higher priority in our community.

A handful of states already have tax incentive programs that help parents afford day school education by giving tax credits to people or institutions that donate toward tuition scholarship funds. In these states, the programs, which have been a lifeline for Jewish parents and Jewish schools, also have benefited Catholic and independent schools.

In New York, Catholic, Jewish and independent voices are banding together to advance this legislation. But we need the support of the Jewish community nationwide.

Donations to scholarship funds already are subsidized through federal and state tax deductions. What makes tax credit programs so valuable is that they increase the savings — and incentives — to donors from a tax deduction, which might amount to 40 percent savings, to a dollar-for-dollar tax credit.

Under the proposed bill in New York, known as the Education Investment Tax Credit Act, instead of paying $10,000 in state taxes, for example, you can settle the debt by donating $5,000 to a nonprofit scholarship fund and paying $5,000 to the state. If scholarship donations don’t seem worthy of a tax credit, consider that New York State already offers tax credits for locally brewed beer and film and television production. Educating our children seems no less legitimate.

The program would help boost donations to art and music programs in public schools and support scholarship funds for students to attend non-public K-8 schools like ours. This would strengthen education for all and fortify our schools for years to come. And it means more scholarship relief to families already sacrificing so much.

Our shared Jewish future is at stake. Without additional funding from public or private sources, Jewish day school education in America will hit a wall as growing numbers of dual-income families find they cannot afford it.

What happens in New York, where roughly half of all the Jewish day school students in America reside, will help set the tone for the entire country. If the day school model cannot be made sustainable here, then this core identity-building tool and pipeline for future Jewish leaders will grow out of reach for more and more families.

As a Jewish community, we have an obligation to pursue every avenue for tuition affordability. This means reducing costs for the services we purchase and provide; tapping every possible resource to increase donations and foundation support; and calling on our government to give families more of a break when they donate toward — or benefit from — tuition assistance.

Many Jews have legitimate concerns about accepting public support for our private schools. It is important to keep in mind that most tax credit programs, including the proposed legislation in New York, help the public system as well. Under the proposed law in our state, half the tax credits available would be designated for support for public education and teacher-designated projects. And none of the credits directed to scholarship entities would come out of the more than $22 billion that our state spends each year on public schools.

The public school system benefits indirectly, too. For every parent who can no longer afford tuition and moves a child out of a private or parochial school to public school, taxpayers must now pick up the entire cost. Here in Westchester County, that’s well above the statewide average of $19,000 per student, not including capital costs. By helping students stay in their existing Catholic or Jewish schools rather than transferring them into district or charter schools, such tax incentives will save the state and local school districts billions of dollars each year.

I agreed to allow students from my school to skip class to attend this rally to show them that what happens in government affects real people. Anyone who cares about a meaningful Jewish future in America should help make tuition scholarship tax credit programs a reality.

Rabbi Joshua Lookstein is head of Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

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