At his presentation this past Sunday, December 3, on tackling the cost of yeshivah tuition, Maury Litwack of Teach NYS did not offer a magic bullet solution on the topic, but offered plenty of details on what had been done so far, and what the public could do in bringing costs down.
“Three years ago, the yeshivah student body in New York City exceeded that of the Catholic schools,” said Litwack. “One out of 13 students in the city is a yeshivah student.” The provided numbers underscore what could be a potential voting bloc if enough parents speak up before their elected representatives. “In nearly every country of the world, governments subsidize nonpublic schools,” said Litwack.
Looking back at the history of tuition advocacy, Litwack cited February 1, 1965, as the watershed date. That was when Rabbi Herman Neuberger wrote an opinion piece in The Jewish Press that provided three principal items for public funding for yeshivos: busing, medical services, and the investment in general studies teachers. “Nearly all of our communities get buses and nursing funded, but secular studies have long eluded us. We had no real voice and no accountability.”
Prior to the founding of the OU-affiliated Teach NYS, many yeshivos and communities lobbied individually in Albany and at City Hall, with the impression that one’s school’s gain could be another school’s loss or missed opportunity. “It was a lack of achdus,” said Litwack. Since its founding in 2013, Teach Advocacy Network counts 45 yeshivos and Jewish day schools as partners in tuition advocacy.
Another longstanding problem was unrealistic goals. “Historically, we asked for vouchers and tax credits, but this didn’t work for New York State,” said Litwack. The OU reframed the argument for secular studies funding as a matter of fairness. “In this state, 15 percent of students attend nonpublic schools but receive less than one percent of the funds. Politicians never heard this before,” said Litwack. He added that, unlike education, other publicly-mandated items allow for a choice, such as selecting a doctor or hospital.
Professionalizing its approach, Litwack’s organization hired an experienced lobbyist to meet with elected officials and present arguments on legislation affecting nonpublic schools. “That’s part of having a voice,” said Litwack. “We’ve also hired an economist to study the issue.” Nevertheless, a lobbyist alone cannot sway a politician as much as a groundswell of constituents. “We’ve got to bring more people in,” said Litwack. As an example, he pointed out the success of Universal Pre-K in the City as a result of public clamor, and urged the audience not to rest until Mayor Bill De Blasio’s promise of free lunch for all is implemented at every school – including nonpublic schools.
The implementation of STEM funding this year by the state was described by Litwack as the “realization of Rabbi Neuberger’s dream.”
STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math – subjects regarded as vital in the changing economic environment and more likely to yield well-paying jobs.
Among the sponsors of Litwack’s presentation is the Alliance of Bukharian Americans (ABA), comprised of young professionals in the community. Last March, in partnership with Congregation Beth Gavriel, it brought 60 supporters to Albany for a day of lobbying. “We will do it again this coming March 13, with more people,” said ABA member Eli Mordukhaev. “In partnership with the OU, we have a voice and we are united for our children’s education.”
Councilman Rory Lancman also attended the presentation, echoing Litwack’s approach. “He said it as well as it could be said. Piece by piece – UPK, security, lunches – that’s how it is done. But we cannot do it without people showing up.” Lancman urged the public to contact his colleagues at City Hall and in Albany, to demonstrate that public support for yeshivos and day schools extends beyond his central Queens district.
There was some degree of skepticism among audience members that the high cost of tuition can be reined in by funding for mandated services. Litwack countered that with such funding, yeshivos in New York are actually less expensive, as every dollar the government contributes is a dollar that doesn’t have to be raised. He added that in a buyer’s market, yeshivos can charge any amount they deem appropriate and parents can choose schools.
Certainly there are yeshivos where tuition is lower, but lacking in all the “bells and whistles,” while other yeshivos and day schools charge more and have extracurricular activities and sizable campuses; and there are still other schools where parents pitch in by volunteering in order to reduce operating costs. This is all part of a marketplace of different approaches towards Jewish education and school administration. But when it comes to giving yeshivos the same tools afforded to public schools, the age of fairness has arrived and could be used as a lesson in successful advocacy.
By Sergey Kadinsky