On the road with the Orthodox Union’s mission to solve the ‘tuition crisis’

Orthodox Union students and representatives urge state legislative members to consider non-public school STEM funding at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Albany, N.Y. (Orthodox Union Photo/Hans Pennink
Orthodox Union students and representatives urge state legislative members to consider non-public school STEM funding at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Albany, N.Y. [Orthodox Union/Hans Pennink]

The Tuition Crises

Hundreds of teachers, students, and parents braved the gloom and rain Wednesday for a mission to Albany organized by Teach NYS, a project of the Orthodox Union advocating for Jewish day schools in New York. Participants made their voices heard on issues related to yeshivas and other religious schools, such as affordable tuition, security funding, and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics [STEM].

One of those in attendance was Jake Adler, the Teach NYS director of government affairs.

“The first thing I’d say is every parent that gets a tuition bill [knows it] would be much higher if not for the work of Teach NYS,” Adler told JP Updates.

Raised in an Orthodox home in Suffolk County, Adler first appreciated private school funding challenges when two yeshivas in his hometown closed.

“13 percent of the kids are in our schools,” Adler said. “The state needs to take a serious look.”

In an email to JP Updates, Adler explained the background of the tuition crises, which he said has been exacerbated over the past 20 years.

“Educating children is expensive,” Adler explained. “Public schools spend north of $20,000 per child, and Jewish nonpublic schools offer dual curriculums, which means longer hours and more teachers.” Adler noted that, because so many Jewish families have many children, “the economic burden is that much higher for these families. Finally, these parents are already paying local taxes that fund public schools, which make the burden of private school tuition that much tougher. All these factors contribute to the crisis.”

Adler wrote that in 2016, nonpublic schools received $345 million in direct aid from New York State for items including security funding and reimbursement for mandated services.

“Teach NYS played a major role in advocating for much of those funds,” Adler wrote. “Jewish schools received approximately $150 million. This is certainly appreciated, but we believe nonpublic school students deserve equal funding for basic services and basic courses, including, security, technological equipment, STEM classes, state-mandated services, after-school programming, busing, programs for special-needs children, etc.”

According to Adler, the average Jewish day school tuition in the NY/NJ area is around $20,000 – $30,000 per student, per year.

Cuomo: I am on your side

Addressing an auditorium packed with #STEM sign wielding activists and yeshiva high school students who cheered when their schools were named, Governor Andrew Cuomo stressed that he heard their concerns.

“The religious schools–Jewish schools, Catholic schools, Muslim schools–are a very, very important part to our education system,” Cuomo declared, pointing out his own education in Catholic schools.

“First, because people have choice,” he went on. “Your parents had a choice. They could send you to a religious school; they could send you to a public school. My parents had a choice and that choice is important to us.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to Orthodox Union students and representatives urge state legislative members to consider non-public school STEM funding at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Albany, N.Y. (Orthodox Union Photo/Hans Pennink
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to Orthodox Union students and representatives urge state legislative members to consider non-public school STEM funding at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Albany, N.Y. [Orthodox Union /Hans Pennink]

Cuomo pointed out that that religious and public schools are equally essential to the New York State education system.

“If you didn’t have the religious schools – if you didn’t have the Orthodox Union educating 200,000 students – they would go to the public schools,” Cuomo observed. “And if they went to the public schools, frankly, our current public education system couldn’t handle it. So, if you want to preserve the public education system, you have to make sure the religious education system stands strong.”

Fighting for your rights

Cal Nathan, an entrepreneur who has been involved with Teach NYS for the past three years, told JP Updates that one of the biggest hurdles the organization has faced has been the New York Assembly.

“The Governor’s also been receptive, but the assembly sometimes has been a little bit challenging,” he said. “So many different groups in the Assembly have been a little bit of a tougher hurdle.”

Rabbi Aaron Feigenbaum of Woodmere’s Irving Place Minyan and a teacher at the Shulamith High School in Cedarhurst spoke to JP Updates about working with legislators to deal with high tuition costs for nonpublic schools.

“The fact of the matter is that education is very expensive. It’s expensive in public schools and it’s expensive in private schools,” he explained. “We have wonderful people who are working to keep our school budgets in manageable condition, and we have to do everything we can from raising private funds and also working on the stateside to see if the statehouse can support our efforts as well.”

In an email to JP Updates, Rob Boston, the Director of Communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS), argued against taxpayer funding for private schools on the grounds that they equal funding someone else’s religion.

“Private religious schools exist primarily to impart the faith of the houses of worship that sponsor them,” Boston wrote. “Thus, like all religious projects, they should be supported with privately raised funds.”

Feigenbaum responded to this line of argument by saying that “the law of the land right now is [1971 Supreme Court case] Lemon v. Kurtzman. The court decided a three-pronged test for the divide between Church and State. Obviously we’re working within the boundaries of the law and everything that we’re advocating for is legal and we have attorneys who will advise on those matters.”

The long journey home

Another group participating in the mission was the Alliance of Bukharian Americans (ABA), whose stated aim is to “unify the Bukharian American Community while providing the highest level of representation for our constituents with local, state, and federal elected officials.”

Rabbi Moshe Taub of Young Israel of Holliswood joined the delegation and delivered an impassioned speech on achieving affordable tuition for yeshiva day schools.

“All that we are asking for is to get our fair break,” Taub said as the bus, packed with members of the Bukharian delegation, rumbled along on the four-hour plus drive to Albany. “The mission today is focused on STEM, science, technology, mathematics, and various secular subjects, and what we are requesting from the government, from the governor, and from the state, is that…at least the schools that are teaching these secular subjects and that is a significant ratio of our tuition should be covered per child. $5,000 per a child, imagine what that could do!”

The mood on the bus overall was enthusiastic and good-natured, with one delegate commenting that the mission to Albany City Hall was like “going to Edom” to advocate on behalf of a Jewish cause.

Yaakov Serle, the publisher of the Queens Jewish Link, told this reporter on the bus ride home that he felt it had been a success.

“I think it was a tremendous success because the numbers went, as they said on the bus today, you have to do your hishtadlus (effort),” Serle said. “Someone mentioned that 10 emails is like one phone call. When somebody comes to their office, that’s like getting 50,000 phone calls. So we, as 500 strong from the O.U., and 60 from our Queens community, the A.B.A., I think it made a big difference.”

03/05/2017 12:03 PM by Menachem Rephun

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