All politics are local. Whatever benefits us takes priority. The Talmud codifies this by putting local needs ahead of others
The Orthodox Union (OU) is supporting a scholarship bill in Trenton that will benefit other communities, but not Northern New Jersey. I support any legislation that will help ease the burden of rising day school costs, but I am committed to my community first. There is and has been a vehicle available to us which we should utilize, namely tuition tax credits.
This is how it works. A community establishes a School Tuition Organization (STO) which is a 501(c)3 entity. The STO is chartered to allocate funds to at least three private/parochial schools. It cannot be set up just for one school. We can have several STOs, or one big one for our region. A bill is introduced into the state legislature allowing citizens to contribute an amount (e.g. $500) of their state tax liability to this STO. It is that simple. It is not a voucher system. This tuition tax credit concept has been working effectively in many states for the past 12 years. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court found it does not violate the separation of church and state.
The Northern New Jersey Jewish community, coupled with the Catholic Church, and groups from other Jewish communities across the state have enough clout in Trenton to get such a bill introduced, passed and signed.
There already have been several such laws passed in New Jersey to benefit low income communities. The organized Jewish community (i.e., federations, JCRCs, etc.) has indicated that it does not want to get involved in this effort. It is time for a grassroots organizing campaign to get this done. No local group, regardless of whether it is secular or religious, and if the latter regardless of sect or stream, will raise enough money to make a real difference. The STO money can come from anyone, not just day school supporters and not just Jews. It does not cost individuals any money out of pocket, and it may be eligible for an IRS deduction. Some states have even developed a tuition tax credit program for corporations and businesses.
The mechanics of allocating the money and the various formulae employed can be easily worked out. Our community’s children will benefit, as will day schools across the state. Once a bill is introduced, busloads of parents can converge on Trenton to lobby for its passage. Once it is passed, it should not be too difficult to convince anyone who supports day school education to allocate the allowable amount to the North Jersey STO. It may take a few years to catch on, but then the money comes in. Do the math.
This is a perfect example of Hillel’s teaching in Pirkei Avot: If I do not advocate for myself, who will? If I am only interested in myself what am I? And if not now, when?
Wallace Greene, a veteran Jewish educator, has been a teacher, principal, professor, and most recently, the director of Jewish Educational Services for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. For many years, he also chaired the National Board of License for Teachers and Principals in Jewish Schools in North America.