Jewish Leadership Coalition formed to ramp up grassroots school choice lobbying

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Last week, Miami Gardens State Rep. Barbara Watson visited the Yeshiva Toras Chaim in her district, a school serving the diverse needs of South Florida’s Orthodox Jewish community from early childhood to post high school.  The YTC provides both Jewish religious education and outstanding secular education to its 600 students, and looks to foster intellectual curiosity and awareness.

In Florida, YTC is not alone in this mission: there are over 30 Jewish day schools in Florida that share in the goal to educate students in Torah and textbook alike.

Yet for parents, becoming part of such a school is not always easy — particularly in a climate where the vocabulary of “school choice” is highly politicized and access to funds are low.

To address these issues — i.e. raise community awareness about resources, tuition affordability, and policy advocacy — a new Jewish Leadership Coalition partnership was announced Wednesday.  The JLC, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization comprised of Jewish lay, rabbinic and educational leaders, Jewish schools and major policy organizations, is the largest singular advocacy initiative ever undertaken by the Florida Jewish community. Its main mission: support educational opportunity for all Florida children.

The JLC will look to the strengths of its member organizations to support Jewish schools in Florida, galvanize Florida’s Jewish community for school choice, and to train and deploy lay leaders to advocate for Jewish education.  To date, there are 14 schools in the JLC partnership, representing more than 5,000 students. 

“The JLC is excited to have the Orthodox Union as a major partner in this venture. The depth of the OU’s experience and its level of commitment to this issue greatly increases and accelerates our chances for success to advocate for school choice and have a significant impact on the world of Jewish education,” said Dr. Allen Jacob, community leader, president of the YTC, and chairman of the Rabbinical Seminary of America Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim.

During Florida’s 2013 legislative session, members of the now-JLC met with elected officials in Tallahassee, in addition to organizing voter registration, grassroots activities, and GOTV efforts.  Moving forward, members will tackle action on the community front, making people more aware of bills and policies that impact the Jewish community.

“We will meet with legislators and give them a chance to visit Jewish day schools,” said Stephanie Susi, JLC associate director. “We will host town hall style forums for elected officials and constituents, and reach out to lay leaders.”

Specifically, the JLC will advocate for policies that would ease the financial burden on private school parents.  While on the federal level, the Jewish community focuses on support for Israel, the number one local concern for Jewish Floridians is education. This means access to vouchers or tax credits for Jewish day school families who cannot afford the tuition or for whose children have special needs.  Further, the JLC aims to include Jewish day schools in equitable programs and services that currently benefit public schools.

Programs such as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, funded by corporations, and the McKay Scholarships, are excellent models for school choice, and expanded or similar programs would go a long way.

Today, the average Jewish day school in Florida receives less than $100 per child in funding from programs such as the corporate tax credit program. The JLC seeks to double or triple that number by enrolling a larger percentage of children in the tax credit program, pursuing funding from other public programs, and seeking greater funding for children with special needs.

The climate for school choice in Florida may well be shifting.  Last month, Florida US Sen. Marco Rubio filed a bill that create a federal tax-credit scholarship aimed at helping low-income children attend private schools and give parents more choices.  Last week, a column in Sunshine State News suggested that Florida’s programs for school choice and accountability have worked relative to other states without these policies. And also last week, the Libertarian Party of Florida passed a motion to encourage Libertarians to take active roles on school advisory councils with the goal of enhancing school choice.

“Jewish day schools are suffering,” said Elliot Schreiber, director of the new partnership. “As long as it is done in a constitutionally sound way, and does not adversely impact the public school system, these dollars should be used for the educational environment that best serves the needs of Jewish families. Our job is to search for these solutions.”