A decade ago, the Jewish community debated whether vouchers violated the church-state wall and whether this “slippery slope” was worth the potential boon of millions in government aid to Jewish day schools. Since then, numerous judicial rulings have answered the church-state question and created an environment in which more than $1 billion dollars in 19 states, both blue and red, is now being spent on various school choice programs. The question of “possible” is moot. Every Jewish day school is eligible for some form of government funding. Every Jewish day school can participate in advocacy that could deliver services and short-term aid. But most importantly, every Jewish day school can pursue advocacy that could create transformative funding for their school and community.
That’s where Jewish day schools, and their professional and lay leaders, must envision, plan, build and assume responsibility.
Through my work with OU Advocacy, I have traveled throughout the United States and have met Jewish day school leaders across the country to discuss the potential support government funding could provide. Surprisingly—shockingly, even―not one Jewish day school I or my colleagues have visited has taken complete advantage of the full-range of government resources available. Security aid is granted annually by the federal government; textbook aid is provided in nearly every state; “Title Services,” such as professional development, are available in some form to nearly every non-public school and even broadband services are subsidized through the federal E-rate program.
While these programs aren’t “transformative” in their funding levels, they do provide real dollars that schools are leaving on the table. Programs that provide substantially more funding are also being ignored by many Jewish day schools. In New York State, the “CAP” and “MSR” programs repay schools for taking attendance and for delivering state-mandated services. While CAP and MSR can provide six figure sums to a mid-sized school on an annual basis, we continue to find schools that either don’t bother to fill out the forms to receive these funds or are underpaid because they can’t be bothered to submit their forms correctly. In New Jersey, 34 schools missed a deadline to submit basic paperwork for funding that would deliver $150 per student in technology and nursing aid. In Maryland, a newly created funding stream for pre-K classes received only one Jewish day school applicant in the greater Washington area. That Jewish day school received more than $100,000 from the state.
In all of these cases, the state funding was available. The Jewish day schools were at fault for not taking advantage of the funding streams.
Lay leaders and administrators seem to enter a state of “brain freeze” when the topic of government funding is broached as a potential budgetary line. Schools that would spend days or weeks pursuing a $5,000 or $10,000 donor’s gift will give scant attention to similar funding streams that can come from the government. Committees are formed to pursue six-figure gifts, but when that same level of funding is readily available from the state, schools often can’t or don’t identify a board member to help them access this “major gift.” Endowment committees are led by the most important and influential donors, but when a legislature wants to pursue tax credits―which could deliver millions yearly to Jewish day schools― most schools won’t offer to testify in support of the bill.
Working together with partner organizations, our advocacy has begun to lead to transformative government funding in some states. More than 25 percent of Philadelphia Jewish day school students participate in the Commonwealth’s existing state tax credit programs, which inject more than $5 million every year into the Jewish day school system. In Florida, we anticipate that close to $9 million will be allocated next year in a similar tax credit program. This is proven funding that makes a significant dent in the tuition affordability crisis. But the potential is so much greater.
Imagine being able to provide free pre-K education to all Jewish day school students.
Imagine being able to slash scholarship campaigns in half.
Imagine being able to fully include special needs students in our schools.
Imagine being able to have full security aid, nurses and numerous other critical resources available in all of our schools.
The legislative will exists, and the government has proven to be an effective source of funding to Jewish education. But Jewish day schools must invest the time and resources necessary in order to see this potentially tremendous return on their investment. Schools must engage in the following three activities to take responsibility and invest properly in this incredible current and potential funding stream.
Create a committee whose portfolio is government funding. This can be a subcommittee that exists within the development committee, but it must be composed of serious lay leaders willing to pursue this funding. Schools that have created this type of committee have consistently discovered funding that their school wasn’t pursuing. More importantly, these committees have forced boards to devote time and resources to advocate when impactful legislation was moving through their state’s legislature.
Engage politicians who represent your community. Politicians want to visit your school. Beyond being a great photo opportunity, hosting state legislators develops relationships and helps educate them about the tuition affordability crisis. We’ve brought hundreds of legislators to Jewish day schools and nearly all leave dumbfounded on the actual costs to run a school.
Activate the grassroots. Jewish day schools represent parents, students and community members. Politicians see this when they visit our schools and interact with our dedicated lay leaders and staff. But politicians need to see the larger engaged community and hear our voice. The Jewish day school community has an anemic voting record. Schools must engage parents about voting to ensure a strong investment in Jewish education. Schools must engage parents to write letters to legislators when important issues are being considered in the state legislature. Schools consistently do this for pro-Israel advocacy. We must reach a comparable level of engagement for Jewish education.
The Jewish day school world must treat government funding as more than just a debate over constitutionality and the potential for big funding. Money is available, more money is possible and transformative funding is achievable. The only question is whether Jewish day schools are willing to take responsibility for this funding.