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Fighting for School Choice

on Friday, March 15 2013. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
John Kirtley may be one of the most impressive people I have ever met. In 1998, having achieved tremendous financial success, John decided he wanted to dedicate his time and resources to a meaningful project that would improve the world. After much research and careful consideration, John decided to privately fund scholarships for low-income children in grades K-8, so that their educational fate would be determined not by their zip code, but by their parents’ choice of which school was best for them.

It didn’t take long for John to realize that no matter how generous he chose to be, he could never have the impact and make the difference that the state government could if it itself would be the source of the scholarship funding. After serious lobbying efforts, John persuaded the Florida Legislature in 2001 to create a statewide Tax Credit Scholarship for all low-income students. Since then, more than 271,000 scholarships have been awarded.

Today, John is arguably the greatest proponent of “school choice” in the country, arguing that assigning a child a school, and by extension a future, by the arbitrary determinant of their zip code alone, makes no sense. Rather, argues John, it is parents who are best positioned to determine which school is best for their child, and as such,, they alone should be charged to make that decision by enabling them to direct their tax dollars to follow the child.

I spent this past Tuesday with John in Tallahassee, together with 30 other Jewish leaders and educators from South Florida. Our mission was organized by the Jewish Leadership Coalition for School Choice, in conjunction with the OU and Agudath Israel of South Florida. It included representatives from Hillel Day School, Torah Academy, Weinbaum, and Donna Klein Jewish Academy, in addition to eight other schools from Miami up to Boca as well as pulpit rabbis and lay leaders.

The many legislators we met with all remarked that this was the largest and broadest Jewish coalition to ever visit Tallahassee. Our diverse group traveled for one purpose only – to join the voice lobbying for school choice. Following the AIPAC model, our community is organizing in a bi-partisan, cross-denominational way to advocate for this single agenda item. Today, the Speaker of the Florida State House, President of the Florida State Senate, CFO of Florida, and the Governor are all staunch supporters of school choice. The majority of Republicans and over forty percent of Democrats agree as well. Our mission was to express gratitude and support for those aligned with our position, and to sway the position of those who don’t.

Currently, programs like StepUp for Students (tax credit scholarship) and the McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities aid thousands of Jewish day school families and result in millions of dollars in scholarship money for Jewish students. Our local schools are already benefiting. Just this year alone, Hillel is receiving $51,538, Torah Academy $110,542, and Donna Klein $8,554. However, due to its rigid income eligibility requirements, the StepUp program still excludes a majority of Jewish families still struggling to afford their day school tuition. Likewise, regulations in the McKay Scholarship seriously hinder Jewish communal participation in the program. The current law limits scholarships only to those children currently enrolled in public school for at least one year. As a result, a Jewish day school student diagnosed with a qualifying disability is forced to transfer to a public school and remain there for a full year before becoming eligible for a McKay Scholarship. Our group lobbied to expand the income guidelines for StepUp and remove the burdensome public school transfer requirement from the McKay Scholarship.

The bottom line is this: it is no secret that our community is suffocating and drowning under the current tuition structure of Jewish education. I have been asked by more than one family who are eager to have another child and healthy enough to do so, if it is proper to bring another Jewish neshama in the world if it means having to go on tuition assistance. In my opinion, parents having to ask such a question is tragic.

The greatest potential for finding long-term relief from this crisis is state funding. Every Jewish school in South Florida has come to this conclusion, as have a number of the Jewish Federations, the OU, Agudath Israel, and community rabbis. John Kurtley was blunt and clear to us. If we organize ourselves, support candidates aligned with our beliefs, and make those that don’t pay the price of not being re-elected or having to work extremely hard even if they are, we have a real chance to achieve the ultimate goal – real school choice.

Many of the legislators we met with are simply ignorant of the issues. Others have heard incessantly from the other side while our community has remained silent. To be clear, this is not a church-state issue at all. Nobody is advocating supporting religious education or specifically Jewish schools. Atheists deserve to make the choice of where to send their children to school and how the educational allotment of their tax dollars are spent.

It cannot be a coincidence that our coalition went on its inaugural mission to Tallahassee on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, a month characterized by redemption and miracles. I witnessed two miracles on Tuesday alone. Firstly, in the name of helping Jewish education, Dr. Roni Raab wore a suit and tie for an entire day. But even more impressively, a group of very diverse and sometimes opposed leaders gathered with a great sense of unity, togetherness, and mission to bring about meaningful change.

Freedom from the bondage of Egypt did not happen on its own. Hashem invited our participation and partnership and asked us to take the courageous step of sprinkling blood on our doorposts. Today, our bondage from the burden of tuition cannot compare to what our ancestors suffered. But, we can learn a lesson from their journey to freedom. If we are to liberate ourselves from this financial captivity, we cannot be apathetic, indifferent, sarcastic, or fatalistic.

In the coming weeks and months you will be asked to join this effort. I hope you will rush to be part of this movement, without hesitation. Together, we can be proactive partners and take the initiative to bring about a change that will make South Florida the most attractive place to live in the country for those who value Jewish education.

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