State Senate panel advances vouchers system

State Senate panel advances vouchers system

Orthodox Union lauds corporate tax breaks for tuition assistance

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, says his organization has so far remained neutral on the scholarship proposal.
Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, says his organization has so far remained neutral on the scholarship proposal.

With a vote of 8-5, New Jersey legislators moved closer to enacting a voucher system that would benefit students at private and parochial institutions, including Jewish day schools.

The move came Jan. 20 at the Senate Budget Committee, where three of eight Democrats joined five Republicans to support the Opportunity Scholarship Act. It would provide tax credits to corporations that provide private school scholarships to students living in a “district in which a chronically failing school is located.”

The amounts range from $8,000 for elementary school students to $11,000 for high school students in 13 school districts, including those in Lakewood, Elizabeth, and Passaic, where there are large Orthodox communities.

As the bill moves toward consideration by the full Senate and the State Assembly’s Education Committee, its early success was lauded by the Orthodox Union, one of the key supporters of the measure.

“Although only three of the districts affected have Jewish communities of note, the Orthodox Union is a proud supporter of change and choice that helps any child in need across New Jersey,’ said Howard Beigelman, the OU’s deputy director of public policy.

His position is echoed by Moshe Vaknin, head of the Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph, which welcomes “families from all branches of Judaism.”

Although none of the public school districts in his county is deemed to be failing, and therefore no students would qualify for such scholarship aid, Vaknin said he supports the legislation.

“Our school will advocate school choice,” he told NJ Jewish News on an e-mail interview. “We would also want the opportunity to educate Jewish children from failing school districts.”

But support for the bill is by no means a given in the state’s Jewish community, many of whose institutions have long supported a strict separation of religion and state.

The New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, for example, has so far remained neutral on the scholarship proposal, neither supporting nor opposing it.

“We reviewed this a few years ago. We have 12 different federations, and each constituency has differing points of view on both sides,” said the association’s executive director, Jacob Toporek, in a Jan. 21 telephone interview.

“We found the community split between the traditional perspective of separation of church and state and public education, and those who felt more concern from day schools about budgets and the economy.”

But, Toporek said, he plans to raise the issue again in an upcoming meeting with directors of the federations’ community relations committees.

“If they decide to support it, I will have to go back to the [association’s] governmental affairs committee to see what they want to do,” he said.

Although the act is a keystone of Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s educational reform legislation, its genesis came during the tenure of his Democratic predecessor, Jon Corzine. Partly in response to pleas from the Orthodox community for help in combating the high cost of day school tuition, a panel appointed by Corzine suggested that corporate-sponsored scholarships might circumvent separation of church and state issues.

Supporters of the idea include the NJ School Choice Alliance, the Latino Leadership Alliance, New Jersey Catholic Conference, and Agudath Israel of New Jersey.

Because of its winter break, no one from the Jewish Educational Center, a network of Orthodox yeshivot in Elizabeth, was available to comment on the legislation. But Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz, its associate dean, told NJJN last July that he supported such a bill, explaining that “any kind of aid and tax credits are incredibly helpful.”

Teitz estimated that some 50 percent of the 850 students enrolled in his kindergarten-12th grade Orthodox day school require tuition assistance.

“Our school does not have an official position on this initiative at this time,” said Joyce Raynor, head of school at the Golda Och Academy — the former Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange.

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