Shabbat of Sanctity Dirshu’s 20th Anniversary International Convention

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TUITION RELIEF – WILL WASHINGTON HELP?

By: Rabbi Max Anteby

In one of the most hotly contested Cabinet nominations in history, Betsy DeVos was finally confirmed to be the next Secretary of Education. For the first time, the Vice President was called upon to cast the deciding vote in a 50-50 deadlock in the Senate, which was largely divided across strict Party lines.

What impact will this new appointment have for the tuition-paying parents of our community?

For the most part, our Orthodox advocates say that they aren’t looking for a big-ticket item, like a federal school voucher program. Instead, they’re hoping for something they’ve been slowly working toward for decades: a federal education bureaucracy that’s more open to supporting religious schools in a variety of ways.

“What I do hope for, and I’m confident will happen, is that you’ll have a Department of Education that is more private school-friendly,” says Agudath Israel’s National Director of State Relations, A.D. Motzen.

            DeVos’ interests align with Orthodox Jewish groups like the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, which have fought alongside DeVos’s American Federation for Children for tax-credit programs. The Jewish groups hope a similar nationwide program will make religious education more affordable for Jewish families.

            “It’s a big change,” said Nathan Diament, Executive Director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center. “In most Democratic administrations, the U.S. Department of Education is a wholly owned subsidiary of the national teachers unions! That’s not going to be the case with Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education.”

Since most public education policy in the United States is made by state and local governments and school boards, the Secretary of Education’s role is somewhat constrained. But Orthodox advocates say that, from her post, DeVos could make federal funding programs friendlier and more equitable to private and religious schools.

The biggest question mark, for now, is pinning down details on President Trump’s campaign promise to allocate $20 billion in federal education funds for state block grants to provide vouchers for poor children to attend private schools. Trump says he will ask the states to ante up an additional $110 billion from their own coffers. (A school voucher program essentially gives parents a certain amount of money to spend on whichever public (or private) school they wish). In a best-case scenario, at least for parents of private school students, the Washington Post suggests, the $130 billion pool could provide an annual $12,000 voucher for every needy school-aged child.

“Making sure that the private schools get their fair share of that funding is one of the challenges we have faced,” Rabbi Motzen says.

But if what has happened in New York State is any barometer, vouchers will have difficulty winning approval from Congress, which has already rejected them several times. For several years, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Senate have sought to establish tuition tax credits for private schools, but the State Assembly has continually balked.

 “People should be excited,” said Mr.Maury Litwack, Director of State Political Affairs at the Orthodox Union.  “But the yeshiva community has to continue to make its voices heard. Charter schools and all sorts of groups will be knocking at her doorstep. They have to hear from us constantly, too.”

In short, it is up to us.  In the past, there were only two ways to influence a politician – by guaranteeing them votes and by contributing dollars to their campaigns. This past election proved that there is now a third way – noise. Let your elected officials know how strongly you feel about a hot issue. School choice is now a hot topic.

DeVos’ ultimate goal is to make education great for all Americans. She brings a fresh view to Washington in an area that has traditionally been ruled by powerful unions steeped in traditional means of educating our students. DeVos believes that if you have a child that needs to be educated, you should have a say in where and how she or he is taught. 

Twelve thousand dollars in government assistance for each of our students would go quite a long way in reducing the ever-increasing tuition crisis that our community, as well as other Orthodox communities, now faces. Let’s do our part in letting our elected officials, whether on the local, state, or federal level, know that we support school choice.

Email or call: Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jerry Nadler, Marty Golden, Simcha Felder, Bill Colton, Steve Cymbrowitz, and Dov Hikind. You can also access President Donald Trump, VP Mike Pence, and Betsy DeVos on Twitter.

Washington CAN help.  We have to tell them how.