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Time to Give Day School Parents a Break


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This fall, the school that I head brought dozens of its students to join 5,000 others at a rally in our county in support of smart legislation to boost education in New York State.

But this is no local story: If successful, our effort will have far-reaching consequences for the future of Jewish life across America.

In my first months as head of Westchester Day School and in my career as a rabbi, educator and community professional, I often have heard from parents who struggle to pay their kids’ day school tuition even while they contribute toward scholarships that support others’ children.

These are parents whose salaries otherwise would entitle them to a comfortable financial cushion. Instead, they effectively live paycheck to paycheck. Parents with this kind of dedication to the Jewish future merit a higher priority in our community.

A handful of states already have tax incentive programs that help parents afford day school education by giving tax credits to people or institutions that donate toward tuition scholarship funds. In these states, the programs, which have been a lifeline for Jewish parents and Jewish schools, also have benefited Catholic and independent schools.

In New York, Catholic, Jewish and independent voices are banding together to advance this legislation. But we need the support of the Jewish community nationwide.

Donations to scholarship funds already are subsidized through federal and state tax deductions. What makes tax credit programs so valuable is that they increase the savings – and incentives – to donors from a tax deduction, which might amount to 40 percent savings, to a dollar-for-dollar tax credit.

Under the proposed bill in New York, known as the Education Investment Tax Credit Act, instead of paying $10,000 in state taxes, for example, you can settle the debt by donating $5,000 to a nonprofit scholarship fund and paying $5,000 to the state. If scholarship donations don’t seem worthy of a tax credit, consider that New York State already offers tax credits for locally brewed beer and film and television production. Educating our children seems no less legitimate.

The program would help boost donations to art and music programs in public schools and support scholarship funds for students to attend non-public K-8 schools like ours. This would strengthen education for all and fortify our schools for years to come. And it means more scholarship relief to families already sacrificing so much.

Our shared Jewish future is at stake. Without additional funding from public or private sources, Jewish day school education in America will hit a wall as growing numbers of dual-income families find they cannot afford it.

What happens in New York, where roughly half of all the Jewish day school students in America reside, will help set the tone for the entire country. If the day school model cannot be made sustainable here, then this core identity-building tool and pipeline for future Jewish leaders will grow out of reach for more and more families.

As a Jewish community, we have an obligation to pursue every avenue for tuition affordability. This means reducing costs for the services we purchase and provide; tapping every possible resource to increase donations and foundation support; and calling on our government to give families more of a break when they donate toward – or benefit from – tuition assistance.

Many Jews have legitimate concerns about accepting public support for our private schools. It is important to keep in mind that most tax credit programs, including the proposed legislation in New York, help the public system as well. Under the proposed law in our state, half the tax credits available would be designated for support for public education and teacher-designated projects. And none of the credits directed to scholarship entities would come out of the more than $22 billion that our state spends each year on public schools.

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About the Author: Rabbi Joshua Lookstein is head of Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck, N.Y.


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2 Responses to “Time to Give Day School Parents a Break”

  1. Ch Hoffman says:

    It would be wonderful to provide state funding for religious schools; it would be a lot closer to R Lookstein's wheelhouse were he to raise the more fundamental issue of Jewish funding – that a significant portion of Jewish philanthropic activities are misdirected to areas where the "jewish" component is optional.

    Every rabbi who supports uniquely Jewish ambulance services in NY, or a Jewish Hospital in NY, or a Jewish studies program at a university is robbing the day schools of funding. And every synagogue that makes itself, rather than its local day schools, the subject of its fundraising efforts is blatantly and shamelessly putting its prestige ahead of the Mitzvah of "vishinantem l'vanecha"

    Give up the chazan, and you pay tuition for 5 kids. Give up the fancy dinners and collect for the yeshivas instead.

  2. Anonymous says:

    First let me clarify, I am an orthodox Jew, a parent and I pay tuition.

    In looking for tuition credits/vouchers etc we too often falsely claim that we get no benefits from the public schools but unfairly have to pay for them. We forget/choose to ignore two major issues:

    1)We do benefit from the public schools and shifting funding away is not without cost to us. The public schools provide an important education for the others in our community with who we deal and often have to rely on. The public schools are able to and have set and agenda of tolerance and understanding which we greatly benefit from. Those of use who wear our yamalkas/kipot (to say nothing of hats, strimles, payot, shatles, tichles etc) on the the street and in the work place benefit daily from the this culture of tolerance which is taught there. Our very physical safety is enhanced, to say nothing of the the willingness of the non-Jews to accommodate our shabbos/yom tov and kasherous needs in various situations.

    2)The same vouchers/funding that would be available to yeshivas would also be available to schools teaching the Alkaida/Farakan brands of Moslem hatred. Such funding will allow more students to shift from the public schools to these schools.

    Yes we are hard pressed to pay our tuition bills, and yeshivot are hard pressed to pay their staffs, but will we really be better off with such tuition mechanisms, or are we trying to trade our good and relatively safe situation for money. We do benefit from the public schools and we need to be very careful in hurting them in any way.

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