‘Put this at the top of our agenda’

‘Put this at the top of our agenda’

Federation and day schools join OU for state funding push

Josh Pruzensky addresses a new coalition, “Teach NJS,” about lobbying to increase state funding for day schools.
Josh Pruzensky addresses a new coalition, “Teach NJS,” about lobbying to increase state funding for day schools.

A new coalition that brings together the Orthodox Union, almost all local Jewish day schools, both Orthodox and Conservative, and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — as well as their counterparts elsewhere in the state — hopes to ramp up efforts to maintain and increase state funding for New Jersey day schools.

The new coalition, called “Teach NJS,” was launched last week at a meeting in a Teaneck synagogue that drew about 200 people on a rainy night.

“One of the most important levers to change the economics of Jewish education is increased state funding,” Sam Moed of Englewood told the meeting. Mr. Moed is president of Jewish Education for Generations, a local effort launched in 2009 to help day school education. “We need to put this at the top of our agenda, and devote our time and energy to the public policy agenda where the allocation of resources is determined,” he said.

Teach NJS took its name and game plan from a similar OU-led coalition across the Hudson, Teach NYS, according to Josh Pruzansky, who heads the OU’s four-year-old New Jersey public policy office. NYS is short for “New York Students,” just as NJS is short for “New Jersey Students.” The New York version of the partnership of the OU, schools, and federation partnership is only two years old, but it can tout its impact following New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s endorsement of a $150 million education tax credit program. While the bill may still fail to become law, if it were to pass it would give a major infusion of money to New York’s Jewish day schools. (More than a third of the state’s private schools are Jewish day schools.)

Mr. Pruzasky said he brought the coalition idea to Mr. Moed and other JEFG leaders, who endorsed it. Then they brought the schools on board. Then came the federation.

“We’re very honored that they thought it’s an important enough agenda that they feel it’s worthy of their funding,” Mr. Pruzansky said.

The federation is allocating funding to JEFG, and that has allowed Teach NJS to hire a field coordinator.

For its first legislative goal, Teach NJS is asking for a rather more modest sum than $150 million. Governor Chris Christie’s budget proposal cut technology and nursing assistance to private schools. Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D.-36th District) told last week’s gathering that he will introduce bills to restore the cuts and add a further $25 per student in security funding for private schools. These measures would cost the state about $9 million and must be approved by both the New Jersey Senate and the New Jersey Assembly — and then it must escape the governor’s line item veto which determines the final shape of the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“Your voices may well make the difference as to whether this is successful or not,” Assemblyman Schaer said.

“In order to be successful, it’s necessary to make a mark. We as a united community have not made a mark; these bills give us an opportunity to make that mark. And the opportunity to build on that next year, so security aid is not $25, but $200 or $300,” he said.

Teach NJS is planning two missions from our area to lobby for the day school funding, tentatively scheduled for June 11 and June 15. (Other communities that are part of the Teach NJS coalition include the newly renamed Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, which covers Middlesex and Monmouth counties and is a merger of the two local federations, its affiliated day schools, and the day schools of Cherry Hill and Voorhees.)

Mr. Pruzansky has led such missions in the past. What’s different now, he said, is the amount of support he expects from the schools.

“We will actively pursue every parent,” he said. “We’re going to work with the schools, the lay leadership, to make sure every parent is participating, and not just rely on the schools sending out an email. Every school has a liaison to work with us and organize in the school. The schools have been very responsive and very involved. They feel encouraged there’s something for them to participate in.”

“Teach NJS requires action,” Mr. Moed said. “We are very good at voicing our concerns about the current state of affairs with day schools and spending a lot of time talking about the problems.”

Now, day school supporters will be asked to commit to “voting, calling local officials, making trips to Trenton — making our voices heard,” he said.

“We will measure the impact of Teach NJS by the dollars allocated to our schools. That will be our report card.”

Rena Klein of Edison told last week’s gathering about a trip she took to Trenton last year to ask to restore state nursing aid to private schools. When her daughter was diagnosed with diabetes, the fact that her day school received enough funds from the state for only a part-time nurse became a problem. This made her story a great one for last year’s lobbying effort to restore nursing funding — but Ms. Klein was reluctant to go when the school’s principal asked her.

“I know very little about politics, senators, assemblymen, the things they do,” she said. “I didn’t want to waste my whole day shlepping to and from Trenton talking to legislators I had never heard of. I didn’t believe there was anything I could say or do.

“I did know it was unfair that the state was providing students in public school with $200 per student for nursing and only $77 for private school nursing.

“Despite my reservations, I thought it was my responsibility to increase the funding for my school. I met with a number of assemblymen who were very sympathetic. They understood it was unfair. I was glad I tried, though I didn’t think it would change anything.

“A few weeks later, I heard that Governor Christie signed the bill to increase the budget for nursing services. With some shifting of hours, this mean my daughter’s school went from a three-day-a-week nurse to four days a week. The legislators listened,” she said.

Mr. Pruzansky called on the community to change its relationship to local politics.

“I went on the Norpac mission to Washington,” he said. “There were 1,500 foreign policy experts. They know everyone in Washington’s voting records on Israel. Then I asked them: Do you know who your mayor is? Who your school board members are? Your state senators? Your assemblymen?

“We’re foreign policy experts but we’re so ignorant when it comes to local things. Funding for services is decided at a local level, not by a person in Wyoming you can’t vote for. It’s important to know the congressman from Wyoming’s record, but we have to do the same in our towns and our state.

“If we look at our voting records in our communities, we don’t really stand out,” he said. Turnout for local elections in heavily Jewish sections of Teaneck and Englewood are not significantly above average. “If we vote in the numbers we have” — that is, if the turnout is significantly above normal — “that will stand out to those who look at the voting records.” In other words — to politicians.

Mr. Pruzansky concluded his remarks last week by sketching out a grand, New York-sized vision of state aid for day schools.

“Let’s come back in a few years to thank Gary Schaer for a thousand dollars a student in state aid,” he said. “Let’s thank Valerie Huttle” — a Democratic assemblywoman from the 37th district, who was at the meeting — “for a tuition tax credit bill with thousands in relief.”

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