Effort led by Beth Medrash Govoha’s Rabbi Aaron Kotler, and Education Attorney Michael I. Inzelbuch, Esq.
Vouchers. Tuition Tax Credits. Opportunity Scholarship Act. Corporate Tax Credits. You likely have heard of these. They are different names toward one goal: lightening the heavy tuition burden carried by financially strapped private school parents. All these are the highest priority in the efforts to ease the massive burden resting on Orthodox Jewish and other private school families – the cost of tuition.
Our tuition burden is unique: a typical non-Orthodox American family pays no K-12 tuition, sending their kids to “free” public school. Public school parents in states like N.J. are not getting off totally free, they do pay real estate taxes, which helps fund public schools. Yet, a typical Orthodox Jewish family pays double – they pay real estate taxes, plus on top of that, they pay private school tuitions.
For Orthodox Jews our tuitions come, in near all cases, from after-tax dollars. That means that a family paying $40,000 in tuitions may need $60,000 in income just to pay tuitions. We tend to have larger families and those numbers can run far higher.
Furthermore, our tuitions payments are not tax-deductible. You might think this is the norm. It is not. Our inability to get a tax-deduction for our tuition payments is unusual among religious Americans.
NO TAX DEDUCTIONS
Christian Scientists, Catholics, and some other Christian groups do get tax-deductions for tuition payments. Their tuitions are treated by the IRS like charitable gifts -they can deduct it on their tax returns, reducing their net cost. Orthodox Jews don’t have that benefit. Those other religious groups either have special tax rulings, as in the case of Christian Scientists, or they have what is called a “Diocese” educational model, common among Catholics, that allows their tuitions to be tax-exempt. The Orthodox community does not have such a model, our tuitions are not tax-deductible, even for the portion of tuition that goes to pay for secular studies.
Orthodox activists have long sought to create such a “Diocese” model, to date those efforts have failed.
Magen Legal, a non-profit public interest group out of Baltimore, has sought to secure tax-deductibility for our tuitions. Magen Legal faces a huge barrier: the famous Sklar case in California. In that case, Michael and Marla Sklar (the “Sklars”) appealed a decision of the Tax Court which denied tax deductions for tuition paid to their children’s Orthodox Jewish day schools. The decision of the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit was clear: the Tax Court correctly affirmed the IRS’s disallowance of deduction for the tuition paid by the Sklars. Magen Legal was founded by Meir Katz Esq., their founding board included national figures such as Mr. Michael Fragin, and Beth Medrash Govoha’s President and CEO, Rabbi Aaron Kotler.
The failure by the Sklars to secure tax-deductibility led many Orthodox activists to focus exclusively on tuition vouchers. Those efforts have been very successful in some states; helping Jewish families in states like Indiana, Ohio, Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania and more.
The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel have been strong advocates of such voucher programs and they are to be commended for their successes. The Orthodox Union and Agudah’s work with organizations like Teach NJ and parallel efforts in other states is slowly but surely gaining traction, easing life for parents and schools in select states throughout the U.S.
Teach NJ is one such group. They have 26 supporting institutions throughout N.J. and have the direct help of the OU. They are keeping the focus on vouchers and funding. Rabbi Kotler and other Lakewood activists have invited Teach NJ’s team to Lakewood, hosting meetings at which the OU’s Allen Fagin, and Yehuda Blinder and Sam Moed who are community leaders in North Jersey, shared of their efforts with the Lakewood Community.
Florida is an exceptional case study in voucher success. Their drive for vouchers has been led by the legendary activist, Dr. Allan Jacob of Miami.
This May, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a yet another bill, this time creating a new voucher program for thousands of low- and middle-income students to attend private and religious schools using taxpayer dollars traditionally spent on public schools. That program is a $130 million Family Empowerment Scholarship program, which was a top priority for the Republican-led Legislature and DeSantis, who signed it during a ceremony at a religious school in Miami Gardens, a city with a predominantly African American population. Its passage marks one of the largest expansions of private-school voucher programs in Florida history. Up to 18,000 students can enroll in the program’s first year from families with annual incomes at 300% of federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that means those making no more than $77,250. The number of students who can participate could rise in future years.
Florida highlights how Orthodox Jews are not alone in the battle for vouchers, many others, including African American’s are strong supporters of vouchers.
In New Jersey, the Orthodox Community backed efforts like E3’s New Jersey Opportunity Scholarship Act, co-sponsored by Lakewood’s State Senator Bob Singer. That 2010 law sought to create a pilot program that would have mirrored Pennsylvania.
It too failed. N.J. is a blue state, and that bill, in the eyes of experienced activists, never had a real chance.
While the N.J. legislature buried the Opportunity Scholarship Act, other states moved forward. In 2019 the Pennsylvania Legislature approved a $100 Million increase in its Education Improvement Tax Credit program. Pennsylvania gives a 90% Tax credit and in some cases a 100% tax credit, for donations by certain corporations to a scholarship fund for private school – a way for Pennsylvania to fund vouchers for private school kids, while avoiding potential church state litigation. That is a simple program. A company donates $1,000 to the scholarship fund. They get back $900 or $1,000 on their taxes. It’s a no brainer – except that such a bill is unlikely to ever happen in two key states.
Ironically, the largest concentrations of Orthodox families are in the very “blue” states like N.Y. and N.J. which are unlikely to ever approve vouchers in any form. This was foreseen by leading Orthodox activists back in 2008, when the Sklar’s case was wending its way through the tax courts.
This conclusion led to intensive brainstorming by a Lakewood working group comprised of Rabbi Aaron Kotler of Beth Medrash Govoha, Rabbi Benny Heinemann of the Lakewood Vaad, and attorney Mr. Michael I. Inzelbuch – who represents the Lakewood Board of Education, and hundreds of public and nonpublic students throughout the State who seek an appropriate education.
Rabbis Kotler and Heinemann and Mr. Inzelbuch chose to add another approach to the N.J. efforts. While strongly supporting the Opportunity Scholarship Act path, they sought to open a new front in the funding battles. Then-Governor Corzine was on record against vouchers and tax credits, which he stated publicly to Orthodox representatives at a meeting in October 2009. However, Corzine was open to new and creative ideas.
N.J. GOVERNOR CORZINE
The Lakewood working group asked Corzine to form a ‘study commission’ that would examine new ideas. Lakewood’s Senator Bob Singer joined in the ask. Governor Corzine agreed. In 2010 he formed a Governors’ Study Commission to address challenges facing “nonpublic” schools in N.J.
Governor Corzine appointed Rabbis Kotler and Heinemann to the Nonpublic Study Commission, along with Josh Pruzansky, who then represented Agudath Israel of NJ, and others.
During the Study Commission’s work Rabbi Kotler approached fellow commission member, Yossi Prager, then Executive Director of the Avi Chai Foundation with the following: instead of pushing for vouchers, let’s ask N.J. to pay for the secular portion of studies in K-12 Yeshivos and other nonpublic institutions.
The idea ran into immediate challenges. New Jersey’s teachers’ unions are very powerful and they would oppose anything that might be seen as weakening public school districts. They have battled charter schools, which are a direct threat to them. They would likely battle this idea too. Rabbi Kotler met with those close to the NJEA, which is the lead teachers’ union in N.J. They confirmed their opposition.
Rabbi Kotler and Mr. Prager tweaked their idea to require that the state only pay for the secular portion of studies in nonpublic institutions when contracted via local public school districts. The response from the NJEA – we don’t like this, but we won’t publicly war with you on this.
The approach ran into another issue: if district arranged third-party teachers, even those provided by a Catapult or Tree of Knowledge, teach certain subjects in Yeshivos, might that not result in potential clashes over curriculum and content? Rabbi Kotler suggested that the proposal be limited to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects, particularly math instruction, as conflicts are unlikely to arise in math. He recalled with nostalgia his own math teacher in Yeshiva of Staten Island, Mr. Dreblat, who was not a religious Jew, but who was much beloved by the Roshei Yeshiva and students. Rabbi Kotler and Mr. Prager both realized that this solution might not work for all Yeshivos, but could provide relief for some.
With the help of fellow Study Commission members Rabbi Menachem Genack and Howie Beigelman of the OU, Senator Bob Singer, Assemblyman Gary Schaer and others they were able to secure support from a majority. Their concept was adopted by the full commission, and endorsed by Governor Corzine, who was a progressive Democrat. Their adopted language in the Commission Report reads as follows:
“Alternative Delivery of Math Instruction
One discipline of particular importance is mathematics, a basic necessity for a modern economy, especially for the workforce in industries such as engineering, design, computer hardware and software, healthcare and pharmacology, finance, and more, an unquestionably secular and neutral subject. At this point, it is widely acknowledged by educational researchers that the single largest factor in student achievement is the quality of teaching. One possible method for providing math teachers for nonpublic schools is via thirdparty providers – companies or non-profits that will contract with local school districts to teach math classes in New Jersey nonpublic schools that opt to participate. Third-party contracted teachers, ultimately accountable to the local school district, will ensure educational excellence in mathematics at a reasonable price and eliminate any concern about the inclusion of religion in the mathematics classroom. This model already exists in New Jersey for other state and federal programs.
- That an alternate method of math instruction, funded with state dollars, be created for nonpublic schools. Nonpublic school participation in such a program should be optional.
- That the program recommended in # 1 utilize third party providers for instruction.”
N.J. GOVERNOR CHRISTIE
This approach to ease the burden on Orthodox families and Yeshivos wended its way through government, requiring years of consistent follow up, as is common in government. In December of 2011, Rabbi Kotler met with N.J’s then-Governor Chris Christie and asked him to endorse his predecessor’s report. Governor Christie pledged his support for this new funding stream.
N.J. GOVERNOR MURPHY
Like many things in government, action takes longer than we hope, undergoing layers of legal and political review. When Governor Murphy came into office the Lakewood working group again pitched him – let’s fund this program and have the state pay for teachers in Yeshivos for the entire STEM (science, math, technology education, or computer science education).
In August 2019, Governor Murphy finally made the program a reality. His model is simple: any nonpublic can directly contract with a public school teacher to teach STEM subjects in the nonpublic school. And the State of N.J., subject to grant approval, will pay for that.
His N.J. Department of Education website makes a simple statement that bears repeating: “The New Jersey Department of Education recognizes the role of nonpublic education as part of the entire state-wide education system.”
This past Friday, February 14th, the NJ Department of Education released details and the application for this grant program, which is generating huge interest in Orthodox and other nonpublic communities across the State. It can help offset much of the cost of the non-Limudei Kodesh portion of education for grades 5-12 and have students become more proficient. In a city like Lakewood, it is particularly welcome, as Lakewood’s public school district has many exceptional fully licensed and experienced teachers, including many who reside in Lakewood and have the cultural sensitivity to deal appropriately with Orthodox students.
This program won’t solve our tuition crisis. We still need additional relief. Those efforts must and will continue. Yet this is a start.
Michael I. Inzelbuch, who represents one of the largest school districts in New Jersey and who successfully represents hundreds of students and their families from diverse communities – such as Jersey City, Edison, Teaneck, Princeton, Jackson, Margate, Passaic, Hamilton, Bergenfield, Colts Neck – seeking an appropriate education, played a key role in assisting Rabbi Kotler with the creation of this groundbreaking program. He notes the program’s tight deadline – applications are due by April 15th 2020.
Inzelbuch stated “a typical Lakewood elementary Mosad with 4 parallel classes might have 16 classrooms in 5th to 8th grades. Funding 16 teachers for 1/3rd of the teaching day means an estimated $400,000 in annual grant funding for just that one Mosad alone. That is hugely significant. In North Jersey, where salaries are even higher it can mean even more income for Orthodox Jewish institutions. This is a win for all students and districts as it does not draw money away from public schools and, in fact, helps educate all students. It also allows local public school teachers to supplement their earnings.”
Rabbi Kotler calls out the Governor’s Counsel, Matt Platkin and his Chief of Staff, George Helmy, to finding a way to help the nonpublic communities while not hurting public schools. He shared that “George and Matt understand that Yeshivos are necessities for us and not simply some lifestyle choice, and they put much time into relieving the burdens facing our families.”
“Now,” says Mr. Inzelbuch, “Rabbi Kotler and I are turning our attention to other states, to see if we can help others states create similar programs, particularly in blue states that are unlikely to enact voucher programs.”
If you are a school interested in applying for funding under this program please see the attached information and again, note the tight deadline of April 15th.
Activists will also appreciate reading the attachments about the failed Sklar case, the failed 2010 Opportunity Scholarship Act, Corzine’s public opposition to vouchers (a position firmly held by Governor Murphy), and the full 2010 eport of the Governor’s Study Commission on Nonpublic Schools. For more information please email Lakewood Board of Education Attorney Michael Inzelbuch at [email protected], or Rabbi Kotler at Beth Medrash Govoha’s President’s office by email at [email protected]Governor's Study Commission on New Jersey's Nonpublic Schools Report
NJDOE Memo (Broadcast) NP STEM (Math in Yeshivos)
NJDOE Memo (Broadcast) NP STEM (Math in Yeshivos)_1
NP STEM GRANT APPlication (Math in Yeshivos)
NP STEM GRANT FAQ (Math in Yeshivos)
Opportunity Scholarship Act (2010)
This is very nice and all but its not going to help famlies. No school is going to lower the tution! We are the middle class who dont get any programs pay “full tutuion” work full time and is struggling to pay our bills. Lakewood/nj dosnt help us. They only reward low income ppl.
While I truly applaud their efforts, I would be shocked of anyone’s tuition bill actually decreases. A more likely scenario is that the schools will do less fundraises etc..
We need scholarships or tax deductions.
The rise in tuition costs over the last 2 years was incredibly high. We hear about more security funding obtained,ect, yet it doesn’t help struggling families.
I support the above, but if it doesn’t result in lower tuition, we are against it.
You can’t get every school program from government. If you get one thing, it is at the expense of another.
Please only work on things that may actually reduce the burden on parents.
If yeshivas get this program, but tuition rates stay the same or go up, THIS ENTIRE THING IS A FAILURE.
can someone tell me how they can afford the tuition’s, as I am working full time making a nice parnasah pay full tuition and struggling to pay my bills this is really discouraging given that in the outside world I would be the top 10% earners.Any ideas how people are managing would be appreciated.
Schools might fund-raise less, that is possible. They might not decrease tuition that is likely.
Also true is that the more funding available the better of an education our children will have, the happier their teachers will be and the better of a return we might get back on what we pay. It will also help poor families who are absolutely unable to pay, with the school better able to absorb that and not increase tuition on the struggling middle class.
It is also possible that vouchers and STEM funding and nursing and security aid and such have eased the tuition burden on us all.
You stole my thunder. You made all the relevant point there was to make abou this and all very accurate.
Just curious what will make the teachers happier – you think salaries will be raised??
So does this mean that we can only hire licensed teachers? What about all the current English teachers that are unlicensed but amazing teachers
Currently many schools have rebbeim teaching secular studies in the afternoon. They would lose a big part of their salary if their schools participate in this program.
It’s baloney. Not gonna help anything. Additionally Like a previous comment said all the rabbeim that teach English in the afternoon will lose that job. You want to help families?? Vote republicans into office who support vouchers. Stop endorsing these liberals. That’s the only way.
When is this effective? Want to make sure I proportionately reduce my tuition checks as soon as this is effective.
When you proportionately reduce your tuition checks, you can also start your own school to educate your children. I’m sure you will get a lot of parents to join you and you will make a lot of money off your new school.
This will start at the same time they widen Rt 9.
Ask any Lakewood boy over the age of 38 what it was like when the Yeshivas had public school teachers teaching English. It was a disaster, and that was the real reason why yungerlight were hired as English teachers. Even now, several major yeshivos are having a very difficult time with their English department in spite of the fact that their teachers are frum.
A fascinating new development is the Merkin Model, which is working beautifully in several Mesivtas.
The Mesivta basically outsources the entire English department, and separate tuition is paid to the agency. It changes the entire dynamic, and is very successful. Discipline is a non-issue, and graduates obtain a GED in two years. It’s a win-win for the Mesivta, the parents, and the students. The problem (but also the reason for the success!) is, that the parents have to pay extra tuition to get it done! It would be excellent if the model cited in this press release could be blended into the Merkin model. Maybe it could ameliorate some of the cultural pitfalls that will arise as a result of putting public school teachers into the classrooms with our children.
Wow! People find a way to complain just about anything the Lakewood Vaad accomplishes. Let’s give credit where it’s due & Our Yeshivos will be financially stronger with this program. I’m very happy that my children’s Yeshiva can run better even if my tuition doesn’t do down.
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