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Tax Credits Make Jewish Education a Reality for Families

December 14, 2006 By:
Jan L. Apple, JF Feature
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A preschool child (Sara Burke) role-playing, taking the Torah out of the Ark (from the one made in the classroom).

For David and Jessica (names changed upon request for personal privacy), raising a young Jewish family in the Philadelphia region has its share of challenges. Committed to providing their children -- ages 8, 5 and 3 -- with a strong identity through Jewish day school and preschool education, the couple has struggled with the financial burden, exacerbated by David's current career transition.

Thanks to needs-based scholarship support from the Foundation for Jewish Day Schools of Greater Philadelphia, however, the family has been able to enroll their children in preschool for the past two years at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park.

"Without this funding, it would really be a struggle," said David. "We are extremely grateful."

The Foundation -- a joint effort between the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and six local day schools -- was established six years ago, when the Ridge administration introduced the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program (EITC). The program provides $35.9 million in tax credits to S and C corporations based in Pennsylvania that contribute to private scholarship organizations providing support to students from low- and moderate-income families. Thanks to contributions based on the tax credit, the Foundation has distributed $2.4 million in partial scholarships in the past five years to more than 1,300 qualified students at the six local Jewish day schools.

Two years ago, the Commonwealth expanded the scope of the EITC program, allotting an additional $5 million dollars in tax credits for scholarship monies to be directed to preschool programs. The Foundation responded to the new initiative by reaching out to Federation Early Learning Services, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia and more than a dozen synagogue preschools to participate in the program.

Steve Waxman, the Foundation chair, says the scholarship organization serves as an effective conduit, linking philanthropic businesses and area families in need of scholarship support.

"I am very pleased that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has expanded EITC to provide funding to Jewish preschools" said Waxmam, who believes that enrollment in Jewish preschools "will increase the likelihood that these children will get either a Jewish day school education or a supplemental Hebrew School education."

In the first year of the pre-K EITC program, the Foundation provided more than $40,000 in scholarships to 32 preschool students. This year, more than $177,000 was awarded to 88 qualified candidates.

"The Foundation enables Pennsylvania families with low and moderate incomes to receive needs-based scholarships for their day school and preschool tuitions," explained Brian Mono, Federation senior planning associate. "Eligible students for the preschool program must be enrolled in a three- or four-year-old program at a participating preschool and live in a household where the total annual income does not exceed $50,000, plus an additional allotment of $10,000 per dependent."

Businesses have the option of directing donations to the day school or preschool of their choice, said Mono. Other corporations leave it to the discretion of the foundation to distribute funds equitably to qualified candidates.

Mono also noted that the foundation utilizes Private School Aid Service, a consulting firm that specializes in needs analysis of scholarship programs, to screen applicants and to develop a formula to distribute appropriate awards.

"The Foundation was very excited that the Commonwealth created a pre-K program to compliment the original EITC program" said Mono. "We think it's a natural extension of the work we do providing scholarships to students at day schools. After all, a significant majority of students who attend Jewish day schools are graduates of Jewish preschools."

David feels the pre-K program is benefiting his family. "The preschool program at AJ is preparing my daughter for a Jewish day school education," he said, praising in particular the unique Hebrew immersion program at the school.

Sherry E. Bohm, director of AJ's preschool, kindergarten and infant center, has seen firsthand how EITC has eased financial burdens for families. "I feel that we need to remove as many obstacles as possible so that our children can receive a Jewish education," stated Bohm. "I am touched that the Foundation realizes that Jewish early childhood education is the cornerstone and the building block of Jewish child development."

Other preschools have reaped the benefits of the program as well.

"The EITC program has allowed FELS to award scholarships to families that, without assistance, would not be able to enroll nor keep their children enrolled at a quality Jewish early childhood education program," explained Maddy Malis, FELS executive director. "For some families, FELS is the first point of entry into the organized Jewish community. The curriculum provides a framework for children to learn about their heritage while fostering positive Jewish identification."

Malis continued: "The cost of child care for families who are at or below the poverty level is exorbitant and can represent 25 to 60 percent of their gross monthly income, leaving little money for food, clothing, shelter and other basic necessities. For some, there are times that a choice must be made between paying child care fees and buying food for their family."

The Wynnewood-based Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, an Orthodox day school, has also benefited from the EITC program.

"The program has made Torah Academy a viable choice for those families with lower incomes who otherwise may not have been able to attend preschool for financial reasons," said Debbie Romanoski, Torah Academy's business manager. "Our preschool classes have a strong educational component that is age-appropriate. They are high-quality and integrated programs, allowing the students to advance easily into kindergarten."

One Torah Academy parent describes EITC as a win-win program for all involved -- the corporations, families and schools. "Our family lives an Orthodox lifestyle and we want our children's education to reflect that commitment," she said. "What they teach at school strengthens what we are teaching at home."

For information, call Brian Mono at 215-832-0812.

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The Foundation for Jewish Day Schools of Greater Philadelphia acknowledges 2006-07 corporate donors for needs-based scholarships:
GCom2 Solutions, Inc.
Morris M. Shuster, P.C.
PEI-Genesis
PNC Financial Services Group, Inc.
Robert Ford Electric Company
Shevlin Investments Inc.
Sussman Automotive
Town Motors
Willner Realty

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