OU looks to Trenton

OU looks to Trenton

School vouchers top priority for new regional director

After 15 years in Washington, the Orthodox Union’s Institute of Public Affairs has set up shop in New Jersey.

In June, the OU hired Rabbi Joshua Pruzansky away from Agudath Israel of New Jersey to become New Jersey regional director of the IPA.

The OU’s priorities in Trenton are similar to those of the more-charedi Agudah. At the top of the list: State aid for parents of day school and yeshivah students.

“No communal issue…is more crucial than making observant Jewish life affordable for families,” said OU President Simcha Katz upon Pruzansky’s appointment. “The tuition crisis threatens our community’s future. Josh’s addition to the IPA underscores our focus on solving this issue.”

Last month, the OU rolled out its New Jersey presence with a breakfast in Teaneck’s Cong. Rinat Yisrael that drew more than 300 people, including more than 30 state legislators and town officials.

The hiring of Pruzansky reflects “the OU’s increased investment in advocacy for its community,” Nathan Diament, head of the OU’s Washington office, told the breakfast. “He will work to rally this community to be a force in New Jersey to advocate for its needs.”

At the event, which was billed as a “legislative breakfast,” suggesting a discussion of a broad range of topics, the tuition crisis was the only issue broached by OU officials.

“We’re bleeding. We’re hurting. It’s destroying our middle class,” said Rabbi Steven Weil, the organization’s executive vice president.

“As the economy has gone down, we can no longer afford to do as we have done before, so we look for help,” said Pruzansky.

“Sixty percent of our property tax dollars are earmarked for education. Very little comes back to help our children,” he said.

In the battle for state aid for Jewish education, the Orthodox organizations are reversing long-standing arguments of the non-Orthodox Jewish community that such aid imperils the separation of church and state on which American Jewish security depends.

The Anti-Defamation League, for example, declares that vouchers for students to attend private or religious schools “pose a serious threat to values that are vital to the health of American democracy.”

The issue of school choice and school reform, central to the platform of Gov. Chris Christie, has been absent from the broader state Jewish communal agenda.

The New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations “has reviewed that issue several times, but because of the different views in the community itself on this, those pro and those against because of the state and religion issues, we’re basically staying out of that,” said Jacob Toporek, the association’s executive director. “We’re not supporting it overtly, we’re not fighting against it overtly.”

He said he believed that one of the state’s 12 Jewish federations submitted testimony several years ago opposing the Opportunity Scholarship Act. “I don’t recall any federation that submitted anything in favor of the act.”

The Orthodox Union is not fighting this battle alone, however. “We’ll partner with the Catholic community. We’ll partner with the Evangelical community,” said Pruzansky.

The breakfast itself reflected a partnership with two organizations leading the charge for private school vouchers and for public school reform.

Excellent Education for Everyone, an organization lobbying for “parental school choice” in urban areas, cosponsored the breakfast along with Better Education for Kids, an organization focusing on school reform in New Jersey. Also co-sponsoring the breakfast was Teaneck’s Cross River Bank.

“The Jewish community in New Jersey has been a strong supporter of school choice,” said Norm Alworth, explaining why Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) cosponsored the breakfast. Alworth heads the organization. “We have a pretty vast coalition of member organizations and groups that support the initiatives, and the OU has certainly been among them, and Josh has been over the years.”

After several years of effort, Alworth’s group is on the verge of having its first school choice initiative approved by the legislature: the Opportunity Scholarship Act. (See related story.)

Alworth noted one accomplishment of the breakfast: “Probably seven or eight of the key no votes in the Democratic caucus were going to be at the breakfast ““ and 300 people who support the issue.”

Better Education for Kids was founded just this spring by two hedge fund managers, one of whom, David Tepper, was named one of America’s 100 richest Americans by Forbes. A resident of Livingston, he donated an emergency seven-figure contribution to the Jewish Federation of MetroWest.

“Dave is a big believer in excellence in public education,” said Mike Lilley, a senior staffer with Better Education for Kids.

Lilley is executive director of the organization’s political action arm, which will be making donations in the upcoming elections for the legislature. The group has not yet decided on endorsements, but he indicated that the 38th district – which includes Fair Lawn and Bergenfield – is the sort of closely contested race in which he might get involved.

“We’re going to be supporting Republicans and Democrats, we want to build a lasting coalition that supports fundamental education reform,” said Lilley.

Currently, the group’s major legislative priority is a bill that would change teacher tenure, requiring that test scores be part of a teacher’s evaluation and making tenure conditional on continued good evaluations.

The head of Better Education’s lobbying arm, Derrell Bradford, previously headed E3, where he worked closely with Pruzansky.

“He’s a fabulous advocate for his people and he’s great on all the issues and we’re happy to support him,” said Bradford.

At the same time, Bradford and Pruzansky said the Orthodox community has an interest in reforming the state’s public schools.

“We need strong public schools in the state and its important that every kid get a strong education. Public schools are the backbone of success in our society. If some of the ideas of Better Education be be helpful in that respect, we can be with them.”

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