It’s one word in a committee report few people will read, but for Maury Litwack, it was a job well done.
The word was “all,” and it appeared in the seemingly bland sentence “Develop a high-quality STEM curriculum for all students,” one of nearly two dozen recommendations in the report of the Education, Access, and Opportunity Transition Advisory Committee designed to guide the administration of Governor Phil Murphy.
Mr. Litwack runs the Teach Advocacy Network for the Orthodox Union, an effort that lobbies state governments for more funding for Jewish schools. It has six state-based efforts, including Teach NJ, in the states that Mr. Litwack says cover 90 percent of the national Jewish day school population. Mr. Litwack, who lives in Teaneck, served on the aforementioned education committee for the transition, as did Nathan Lindenbaum, also of Teaneck, who is a member of the executive committee of Teach NJ. Teach NJ, which has a three-person staff based in Teaneck, is also supported by Jewish schools and federations across the state, including the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
Mr. Litwack’s involvement on the transition committee “was a big deal,” he said, “because it was the first time I’ve seen that a representative of the Jewish day school world was asked to serve on a transition team. That’s an important reflection of the way the government views us in terms of an issue and a priority.”
As for the document itself: “It talked repeatedly of investing in STEM for all kids.” That word “all” — which he understands to include private school as well as public school students — “is a reflection of our voice and conversations. The recommendation of investment in all kids is a great starting point.”
The quest for more funding for yeshivas and day schools often has landed in the middle of a heated debate concerning general education. Should the government assist only public schools, which it can hold to its standards, and which must accept all students? Or, as advocates of school vouchers have argued, should money go to parents to send children to the schools of their choice? That is something that public-school advocates have seen as damaging to the existing public school system.
When the OU first came to New Jersey in 2011 to begin advocating for help in Trenton for the yeshiva tuition crisis, it found allies in the school choice movement. A legislative breakfast run by the OU that year was sponsored in part by an organization calling for private school vouchers.
Now, though, “This is 2.0. We’re not talking about vouchers, about taking money away from public schools,” Mr. Litwack said. “We’re not looking to take money away from people.”
Instead of taking money directly from local school districts, Mr. Litwack said, Teach NJ wants to continue the increases it has helped get from Trenton for per-capita aid for students in private schools, while trying to replicate funding streams it has been able to open up in other states.
This year, the state allocated money to private schools for textbooks, technology, security, and nursing. These separate line items came to about $260 per student, or $39.7 million in private school funding. Of that amount, $11.5 million goes to Jewish schools, which make up 29 percent of the state’s private school enrollment. This sum represents a significant increase since TeachNJ launched in 2015.
“Since we’ve been doing this work, there’s been close to a 50 percent increase in funding from Trenton for day schools and other nonpublic school kids,” Mr. Litwack said. “We created the first-ever new line item of funds: security funding. We think security funding, which now hovers around $75 per kid, should be $144 per kid.”
Still, such three-figure per-student allocations from the state have only a small impact on the budget of Jewish day schools, which — at least in Bergen County — charge five-figure tuitions. If the state were to increase its subsidy for private education twentyfold, it would be spending nearly a billion dollars a year for private education — and reducing, but not eliminating, tuition. By contrast, the state spends more than $9 billion on direct aid to public schools. This does not include the many billions local governments spend on their schools.
If day school advocates are seeking continuing and steady increases in state funding in each budget year, they ultimately will face limits on how much schools reasonably can be said to be spending on textbooks or technology or nursing or security — areas that have been cordoned off, by custom and some decreasingly relevant court rulings, from the private schools’ core instructional enterprise.
That’s why the OU hailed as “historic” a New York State law passed last year that would reimburse private and religious schools that hired qualified instructors for science, technology, engineering and math.
“This creates an environment where schools are incentivized to hire quality teachers,” Mr. Litwack said. This year, New York has allocated $5 million for this, with the money to be divided proportionately among the schools that apply.
“We expect the program to grow rapidly. Everyone in New York is excited. That the state is investing in the secular side of our instruction, with bipartisan support, is a real testament to how far we’ve come on these issues.
“Our argument is that this is a growing population that requires investment from the state, or you lose these people as residents. Their kids don’t come back,” he said.
“It’s a big deal because the tuition crisis is not just about cost, it’s about quality. This creates an environment where schools are incentivized to hire quality teachers,” Mr. Litwack concluded.
Under the New York regulation, teachers must be state certified or have masters degrees to be eligible for funding.
As for actual lobbying tactics, the Teach Advocacy Network focuses on mobilizing thousands upon thousands of day school parents for grassroots lobbying. “The uniqueness of our model is we don’t believe in the necessity of a day-to-day person in Trenton,” Mr. Litwack said. “The point of contact we want to have is between politicians and community members.
“On March 13, we will have 1,200 people in the halls of Albany. It’s the largest Jewish lobbying mission after AIPAC. It demonstrates this is a movement about parents and kids who are suffering.”
What: Teach NJ’s annual legislative breakfast, “Advocating together for safer, stronger, and more sustainable schools.”
When: Sunday, April 15, 9–11 a.m.
Where: Teaneck Marriott at Glenpointe, 100 Frank W. Burr Boulevard, Teaneck
How much: $36
More information: Email Renee Klyman at KlymanR@ou.org or call (201) 836-3943.