Jewish educational leaders appear determined to continue building on the legislative victory scored this summer when the state approved a new tax credit program aimed at making private schools more affordable.
In July, the state approved the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, which provides $50 million in tax credits to businesses that provide scholarships to help pay private school tuition for students who would otherwise attend their area’s failing public school. The state also increased the amount of money available in the separate Educational Improvement Tax Credit program from $75 million to $100 million. That program, which also provides credits to businesses, has more of a direct impact on Jewish day schools since it is not restricted to students slated to attend a failing school.
All of the money allocated for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program has been used but only $12 million of the money allocated for the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program has been used, said Elliot Holtz, a board member of the Foundation for Jewish Day Schools. He noted a lack of awareness of the new tax credits among potential donors. They are also more complex because they are limited to helping students who would otherwise attend a failing school.
The issue is not a lack of need among students and families — even in the Jewish community. Holtz said there are about 150 students attending Jewish day schools who would be eligible to receive funds from the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program. He also said there are Jewish families in areas such as the Northeast who would like to send their children to private schools but can not afford the tuition without such scholarships. If more businesses start to donate, he said, private schools could start to recruit students from failing schools. “Day school has become so unaffordable,” Holtz said. “It’s a crisis.”
School tax credits were among the issues that came up at a recent breakfast where Ron Tomalis, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, and Terrence Griffith, the president of Black Clergy of Philadelphia, joined Jewish day school principals and leaders of Jewish organizations such as the Kohelet Foundation to discuss the impact of tax credits and how to best address the issue of day school affordability. The Orthodox Union, which has become increasingly active in Harrisburg lobbying for the issue, sponsored the event.
Holtz encouraged attendees to approach their legislators about the challenges their schools face and changes they’d like to see the state make. He added that the Jewish community might need to expand its efforts “to support some of the disadvantaged black kids in the city.”
“The Jewish community has always been about tikkun olam and helping and healing other people,” Holtz said in an interview. “We need to think about how we can work with a broader coalition to help improve the overall education in the city.”
Griffith, a pastor at First African Baptist Church, began his remarks by expressing his respect for the Jewish Sabbath. He went on to discuss issues such as battles with teachers’ unions and lack of funding that are not unique to any one community’s schools. “Bad teachers should be fired, bad principals should be dismissed,” said Griffith, who is from Granada.
Several officials commented on the fact that Tomalis attended the breakfast, seeing it as a sign of his concern for Jewish day schools. He drew applause when he said, “My responsibility as secretary is not just to the 1.7 million students we have in public schools, but to the students in your schools” as well.