Orthodox partners lobby for day school funding
Monmouth Sephardim join forces with OU over state assistance
A group founded by members of the Monmouth County Sephardi community has formed a partnership with the Orthodox Union over an issue of concern to both groups — day school funding.
The Community Federation of New Jersey, whose chair, Sammy Saka, is president of Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean, was formed earlier this year.
In March it organized a meeting attended by more than 70 NJ day school leaders in partnership with the OU and its national Institute for Public Affairs. That meeting led to the current initiative of lobbying politicians for government assistance to parochial and other private schools.
“Our children deserve a good education,” Saka, of Oakhurst, told NJ Jewish News. Describing his organization as a “grassroots, informal group” working with the OU, he said, “We’re building a connection of all of the yeshivas throughout New Jersey with the ultimate goal of educational affordability.
“The common denominator is every school needs help,” Saka said.
Maury Litwack, director of political affairs for the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs, told NJJN that the two groups began to focus on the issue around the same time. The groups favor a “bottom-up approach” to lobbying, he said, as opposed to a few insiders “cutting a deal in the halls of Trenton.”
Off the two groups’ agenda at the moment are lobbying efforts in Trenton to institute a voucher system for parochial schools. “The traditional voucher fight is a thing of the past,” Litwack said.
Rather, they hope to work with government to offset school costs in such areas as technology, nursing services, and special-needs funding.
They also support the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would allow corporations to receive corporate tax credits for donating scholarship funds to day schools.
“We see tax credits and many options out there” as a way to both support Jewish education and avoid breaching the constitutional wall between church and state, Litwack said.
The NJ legislature did restore half of a non-public school technology grant of $40 per student for fiscal year 2013 — after three years of no funding at all — following communal lobbying efforts by non-public school advocates.
Litwack said the groups hope to convince elected officials that day school parents pay their share of property taxes, while saving public funds on the cost of their children’s enrollment.
The OU stepped up its political visibility in the state over the past year with the hiring of Josh Pruzansky as its NJ director of political affairs and public policy. With financial support from the CFNJ, the OU’s NJ Political Affairs Office last month hired two staffers, Arielle Frankston-Morris as marketing specialist-community outreach, and Eric Kaplan as coordinator of voter outreach.
Kaplan will be organizing the OU’s “Get Out the Vote” campaign throughout the state.
“We look forward to a successful collaborative effort between the OU and the Community Federation and hope it will serve as an impetus for other community groups to partner together with us in hopes of succeeding in our goal of increased educational aid for our families and schools from the State of New Jersey,” Pruzansky wrote NJJN in an e-mail.
Despite its name, the CFNJ has no affiliation with the State Association of Jewish Federations or the 11 NJ federations it represents.
The State Association takes no position on school vouchers or on the Opportunity Scholarship Act; each federation under its umbrella can decide if it wants to spearhead its own lobbying efforts, said State Association executive director Jacob Toporek. He said his group is concerned with a wide range of social service needs in addition to day school funding.
“We all share a concern that the funding levels from the state remain the same” for technology and similar funding, said Toporek, a member of the state’s advisory board on nonpublic schools.
When asked about the similar names of his group and the CFNJ, Toporek said, “I had some concern, but a name is a name.”
Day school tuitions can average $15,000 a year and up for K-8, and considerably more for high school.
“This is a crisis,” agreed Michael Arking of Ocean Township, the CFNJ’s liaison with the OU. “We can’t go on complaining indefinitely.”
Noting that “the politicians really didn’t take much notice of us” before, Arking said, the group’s message is simple: “Be a somebody, vote — because nobody’s going to solve our tuition crisis.”
“We need an army; we need more people,” Litwack said. “This should be a principal domestic policy issue for the Jewish community.”