This past election, the Jewish community lost two lawmakers in the Pennsylvania state legislature who were good friends when it came to supporting school choice programs. To protect these gains in the new legislature, which was sworn in last week, it is crucial that we engage our new legislators and ask them to support educational opportunity with the same vigor as their predecessors.
Sen. Jeff Piccola, a Republican whose district included Harrisburg’s Jewish community, retired after serving for 36 years. Rep. Mike Gerber, a Democrat whose Montgomery County district included Lower Merion’s Jewish community, retired after eight years. Their efforts culminated in an unprecedented expansion to school choice last year.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law legislation expanding Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and creating a new program — the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) — for students bound for low-performing schools. Corporations can use these tax credits to fund scholarships for low and middle-income students (under the EITC) or for students who live near low-performing schools (under the OSTC).
Altogether, the state set aside an additional $65.7 million for scholarships last year — on top of the existing $54.7 million. This success was largely possible thanks to Sen. Piccola’s leadership and Rep. Gerber’s unwavering support for educational choice.
On Jan. 1, Democrat Rob Teplitz succeeded Sen. Piccola, and Mary Jo Daley, also a Democrat, succeeded Rep. Gerber. Though strong supporters of public schools, neither of the newcomers has expressed support for the EITC or OSTC. At the very least, we must meet with our new legislators and explain why these tax credit programs are indispensable for our community.
This outreach will be doubly important as we look ahead to the new legislative districts that will take effect for the 2014 elections. Every 10 years, the Pennsylvania legislature updates its legislative district lines based on U.S. census data to ensure that each area represents roughly the same number of voters. The most recent update means that you may have a new legislator representing you in Harrisburg in the next election.
What is the best way to teach our legislators? Aside from contacting their offices and meeting with them directly, we should invite our lawmakers — whether newly elected or incumbent — to visit our schools, speak in our synagogues and attend our charity fundraisers.
The Orthodox Union is committed to building strong relationships between our communities and our legislators as the single best way to advance school choice. We stand ready to provide community leaders with the information, advocacy training and policy knowledge to effectively engage their legislators.
Now is the time to make a fresh start in Harrisburg and to ask our legislators to support school choice. If we do not take the initiative in the upcoming legislative session, then there is no shortage of school choice opponents who will.
Michelle Twersky is Pennsylvania political director for the Orthodox Union. Gabriel Aaronson is the group’s public policy fellow.