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entries tagged with: Joshua Pruzansky


OU looks to Trenton

Scholarship bill a ‘first step,’ but in what direction?

New Jersey may begin providing for tuition payments for some students to attend private schools, including Jewish day schools and yeshivahs, if efforts of school choice advocates succeed when the legislature resumes its session in November.

It will not help Bergen County residents pay their tuition bills, however.

The funding would come through the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that passed the required committees in the State Senate and one of two committees in the Assembly. Advocates of the act, including the Orthodox Union, hope the measure moves forward and goes to Governor Chris Christie for signing before the legislative session ends in December

As currently drafted, the act would provide scholarships of up to $8,000 for elementary school students and $11,000 for high school students. One quarter of the available scholarships would be set aside for students presently attending private or parochial schools. The scholarships would be available for families earning up to 250 percent of the poverty line — about $65,000 for a family of five. The schools accepting the scholarships would have to accept them as full tuition, test participating students in statewide testing, and follow other requirements.

The catch for northern New Jersey residents, however, is that these scholarships will be available only for students in a certain number of “chronically failing” school districts — which do not include any in Bergen County.

Three of the 13 proposed pilot districts, however, do include substantial Jewish, and Orthodox, communities: Passaic, Elizabeth, and Lakewood.

“It’s something we’re very positive and happy about,” said Rabbi Joshua Pruzansky of the prospect of the Opportunity Scholarship Act’s passage. “At least it’s moving in the right direction.”

“This is indeed a process,” Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) told the OU’s legislative breakfast. Schaer is one of the lead co-sponsors of the Opportunity Scholarship Act. “We will start small. As long as we start the process, we will have the opportunity to have much more done.” Schaer, from Passaic, is the first Orthodox Jew to serve in the state legislature.

One vocal communal critic, however, does not believe this process is a step in the right direction. Blogging under the pseudonymn 200kchump, one Bergen County father of day school students has been loudly decrying the high price of day school tuition. He has advocated reform of existing schools, supported the proposal for a local Hebrew-language charter school, and most recently trumpeted the creation of a new lost-cost yeshivah.

State funding, he insists, is not the answer, for two reasons.

“I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard. “It is up to us as a Jewish community to figure out
a way to provide affordable education to our children. We should not be asking for nor accepting handouts from the government to support our yeshivahs.

“Even if one could get comfortable with the church/state issues, our beloved state is a fiscal mess thanks in large part to the greedy public servants who have nearly bankrupted this state. While Gov. Christie is finally starting to get our fiscal house in order and stand up to the unions, I do not believe the state currently is in a position to provide state-financed scholarships.”

Fiscal issues are expected to be concerns as the Assembly budget committee considers the scholarship act, with the possibility of its costs being scaled down.

Cost-cutting concerns in Trenton already have cost day schools money this year. An effort to restore $40 per-capita aid in technology assistance to private schools was part of the budget passed by Democratic legislature, but was vetoed by Christie.


OU looks to Trenton

School vouchers top priority for new regional director

After 15 years in Washington, the Orthodox Union’s Institute of Public Affairs has set up shop in New Jersey.

In June, the OU hired Rabbi Joshua Pruzansky away from Agudath Israel of New Jersey to become New Jersey regional director of the IPA.

The OU’s priorities in Trenton are similar to those of the more-charedi Agudah. At the top of the list: State aid for parents of day school and yeshivah students.

“No communal more crucial than making observant Jewish life affordable for families,” said OU President Simcha Katz upon Pruzansky’s appointment. “The tuition crisis threatens our community’s future. Josh’s addition to the IPA underscores our focus on solving this issue.”

Last month, the OU rolled out its New Jersey presence with a breakfast in Teaneck’s Cong. Rinat Yisrael that drew more than 300 people, including more than 30 state legislators and town officials.

The hiring of Pruzansky reflects “the OU’s increased investment in advocacy for its community,” Nathan Diament, head of the OU’s Washington office, told the breakfast. “He will work to rally this community to be a force in New Jersey to advocate for its needs.”

At the event, which was billed as a “legislative breakfast,” suggesting a discussion of a broad range of topics, the tuition crisis was the only issue broached by OU officials.

“We’re bleeding. We’re hurting. It’s destroying our middle class,” said Rabbi Steven Weil, the organization’s executive vice president.

“As the economy has gone down, we can no longer afford to do as we have done before, so we look for help,” said Pruzansky.

“Sixty percent of our property tax dollars are earmarked for education. Very little comes back to help our children,” he said.

In the battle for state aid for Jewish education, the Orthodox organizations are reversing long-standing arguments of the non-Orthodox Jewish community that such aid imperils the separation of church and state on which American Jewish security depends.

The Anti-Defamation League, for example, declares that vouchers for students to attend private or religious schools “pose a serious threat to values that are vital to the health of American democracy.”

The issue of school choice and school reform, central to the platform of Gov. Chris Christie, has been absent from the broader state Jewish communal agenda.

The New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations “has reviewed that issue several times, but because of the different views in the community itself on this, those pro and those against because of the state and religion issues, we’re basically staying out of that,” said Jacob Toporek, the association’s executive director. “We’re not supporting it overtly, we’re not fighting against it overtly.”

He said he believed that one of the state’s 12 Jewish federations submitted testimony several years ago opposing the Opportunity Scholarship Act. “I don’t recall any federation that submitted anything in favor of the act.”

The Orthodox Union is not fighting this battle alone, however. “We’ll partner with the Catholic community. We’ll partner with the Evangelical community,” said Pruzansky.

The breakfast itself reflected a partnership with two organizations leading the charge for private school vouchers and for public school reform.

Excellent Education for Everyone, an organization lobbying for “parental school choice” in urban areas, cosponsored the breakfast along with Better Education for Kids, an organization focusing on school reform in New Jersey. Also co-sponsoring the breakfast was Teaneck’s Cross River Bank.

“The Jewish community in New Jersey has been a strong supporter of school choice,” said Norm Alworth, explaining why Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) cosponsored the breakfast. Alworth heads the organization. “We have a pretty vast coalition of member organizations and groups that support the initiatives, and the OU has certainly been among them, and Josh has been over the years.”

After several years of effort, Alworth’s group is on the verge of having its first school choice initiative approved by the legislature: the Opportunity Scholarship Act. (See related story.)

Alworth noted one accomplishment of the breakfast: “Probably seven or eight of the key no votes in the Democratic caucus were going to be at the breakfast – and 300 people who support the issue.”

Better Education for Kids was founded just this spring by two hedge fund managers, one of whom, David Tepper, was named one of America’s 100 richest Americans by Forbes. A resident of Livingston, he donated an emergency seven-figure contribution to the Jewish Federation of MetroWest.

“Dave is a big believer in excellence in public education,” said Mike Lilley, a senior staffer with Better Education for Kids.

Lilley is executive director of the organization’s political action arm, which will be making donations in the upcoming elections for the legislature. The group has not yet decided on endorsements, but he indicated that the 38th district — which includes Fair Lawn and Bergenfield — is the sort of closely contested race in which he might get involved.

“We’re going to be supporting Republicans and Democrats, we want to build a lasting coalition that supports fundamental education reform,” said Lilley.

Currently, the group’s major legislative priority is a bill that would change teacher tenure, requiring that test scores be part of a teacher’s evaluation and making tenure conditional on continued good evaluations.

The head of Better Education’s lobbying arm, Derrell Bradford, previously headed E3, where he worked closely with Pruzansky.

“He’s a fabulous advocate for his people and he’s great on all the issues and we’re happy to support him,” said Bradford.

At the same time, Bradford and Pruzansky said the Orthodox community has an interest in reforming the state’s public schools.

“We need strong public schools in the state and its important that every kid get a strong education. Public schools are the backbone of success in our society. If some of the ideas of Better Education be be helpful in that respect, we can be with them.”


OU beefs up lobbying efforts

Targets day school funding in New Jersey

The Orthodox Union is ramping up its New Jersey political activism, hoping to influence legislators to increase state funding for Jewish day schools and alleviate what it calls a crisis of tuition affordability.

“The OU sees the government funding piece as an opportunity to build and support schools,” Maury Litwack, director of political affairs for the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs, said.

A year ago, the OU hired Rabbi Joshua Pruzansky away from Agudath Israel of America to lobby in Trenton and direct the New Jersey division of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs.

Now it is hiring two new staffers to raise the Orthodox community’s political profile at a grassroots level. Arielle Frankston-Morris will help local rabbis and congregants develop relationships with their local elected officials, and Eric Kaplan will focus on increasing voter turnout in November and beyond.

Pruzansky said that in the last legislative elections, which were in 2011, Orthodox neighborhoods in Teaneck and Englewood saw voter turnout of around 25 percent, roughly the same percentage that voted throughout the state, in what was a record low turnout statewide.

“While those numbers might be around the state average, the potential to make a statement that our community is involved can be made by simply having more people come out to vote,” Pruzansky said. “If we were able to get a 50 percent turnout, you can bet that the elected leadership will take notice.”

Last month, Pruzansky heralded the inclusion of a $20 per capita technology grant for the state’s private schools in the state budget. But another measure, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, now seems dormant until after the November election, following Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver’s refusal to advance it for a vote.

As the bill now is drafted, it would provide scholarships for private schools to up to 20,000 students, a quarter of them now enrolled in private schools, in specified school districts that include the heavily Orthodox districts of Lakewood and Passaic, but not the richer Jewish communities in Bergen County.

Elsewhere across the country, the OU has been involved in successful legislative efforts that are bringing money into day school coffers.

In April, the OU joined in helping to pass what has been described as the nation’s largest voucher program, in Louisiana. It was introduced and promoted by the state’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal. The measure gained the support of the state’s non-Orthodox Jewish community, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans.

The OU also has set up offices in Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania in the last six months. According to Litwak, this reflects the priorities of the OU’s president, Dr. Simcha Katz of Teaneck.

“This is a primary part of his presidency,” Litwak said.

While the OU is making this a signature issue, Pruzansky said that state aid to day schools, and the increased voter participation that would make it happen, is not “simply an Orthodox issue. Every community that has a day school should feel the need to get out and vote. Achieving our goals will help all non-public schools and their families better afford an education that we feel best suits the needs of our children.”

‘Community Federation’ partners with OU

The new New Jersey hires are being underwritten in part by a group of Monmouth County Jews calling themselves the Community Federation of New Jersey, supporters of Jewish education from the Syrian Jewish community of Ocean Township and Deal.

“We’re really just a group of individuals who came together and are trying to influence politicians, let them know that Jews vote, that education is something close to our heart,” Michael Arking, the federation’s liaison with the OU, said.

“This idea of an affordable yeshivah education is close to my heart on a personal level. I feel that Jews are disappearing, and I feel that education is the answer to that,” he said. “It’s a real challenge to young families. The cost ofeducation is just a tremendous burden on communities and families. It drives people to take their children out of yeshivah and put them in secular schools. I don’t see how this burden can continue on.”

In March, the community federation convened a meeting of representatives of day schools statewide to discuss political action. Subsequently, at least some area schools sent out emails to their parent bodies highlighting the importance of voting in local elections.

Outside the Orthodox world, the American Jewish community traditionally has opposed government funding of religious schools. This can be seen in the 2012 policy compendium of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group made up of local Jewish community relations councils and national Jewish organizations.

“The JCPA reiterates its long-standing belief that publicly funded vouchers used for sectarian school tuition costs seriously undermine the fundamental principles of separation of church and state,” the statement reads. A dissent from the OU in the compendium says its members “believe that the Jewish community has traditionally been committed to principles that should lead it to support school choice initiatives.”

This statement reflects discussions on the issue held in 1998. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions have upheld the legality of voucher programs and have led to their spread. The JCPA has established a committee to reexamine the issue.

In northern New Jersey, the issue was last raised by the Jewish Community Relations Council before the 1998 JCPA discussion, Joy Kurland, the council’s director, said. After an in-depth discussion at the time, the group concluded that it could not support public funding for private schools.

Across the state, the New Jersey Association of Jewish Federations has supported aid to day schools for such things as technology assistance, but because of a lack of consensus among its member federations it has no position on the larger and more contentious issue of vouchers.

Also this summer, the OU has launched another effort touching on day school affordability. In conjunction with the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, it has started the Day School Affordability Knowledge Center to spread information about existing affordability initiatives.

“Our concept is to gather information and provide analysis to the community in a very understandable and usable form,” Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the OU, said. “We’re now well underway on our first project.”


State pathway to Sinai?

New bill would help special needs students

Larry YudelsonLocal
Published: 08 March 2013

The New Jersey Assembly’s education committee has approved a bill that could make it possible, in some cases, for local school districts to refer special need students to Sinai Schools and other sectarian special education programs and make it possible, in some cases.

The bill awaits a vote in the full Assembly and has yet to be introduced in the Senate, but it has bipartisan supporters in both houses in Trenton.

If approved, it would represent a significant lobbying victory for Joshua Pruzansky, who was hired by the Orthodox Union last year to head the New Jersey branch of the Institute for Public Affairs, the OU’s lobbying arm. The OU has made state assistance to Jewish day schools a top priority. It recently opened an office in Teaneck that will focus on voter registration and turnout in the Orthodox community.

Special education assignments and funding are determined by the interplay of federal and state law.

Federal law mandates that all children have a “free and appropriate public education.” for every child with disabilities. In situations where a district doesn’t have an appropriate public school placement to offer, current New Jersey law provides the district with a menu of public and private options that the district can pay for. One option is that the district can pay for a private school — but under the current NJ statute, that private school must be non-sectarian.

The bill would remove that non-sectarian restriction and allow placement in “accredited” private schools. So under the bill, Sinai would become one of the placement options available to a district. The bill would allow the district to pay for only non-sectarian portions of Sinai’s services.

New York State lacks the “non-sectarian” aspect in its special education law, and as a result 30 students from New York commute to Sinai Schools in New Jersey, and the New York City Department of Education pays part of their tuition.

Through costly litigation, a handful of New Jersey families actually have been able to obtain reimbursement of a portion of their Sinai tuition even under current law. The bill might provide a less costly and less risky path toward placement of students in Sinai in appropriate cases.

“It’s too early to tell just what the practical impact of the legislation would be,” said Sam Fishman, Sinai’s managing director. “How a parent seeking district placement of their child in Sinai would fare under the proposed law would depend on the specific facts of each case: What are the needs of the child, can the district’s public schools meet those needs, and if not, can Sinai meet those needs? There could be other factors (including budgetary and political factors) that might influence whether a school district would resist paying for private school tuition, even if the new law were adopted.

“We hope that the bill is enacted into law, because it does have the potential to help some families in appropriate cases. However, scholarships, which are made possible by our own private fundraising, are likely to remain the predominant source of help to our parents,” Fishman said.

“We are very grateful to the OU for championing legislation that could potentially help families of children with disabilities.”

The OU’s importance in the bill’s advancement was acknowledged by Assemblywoman Connie Wagner of Paramus and Bergenfield during a recent appearance at an OU-sponsored forum held at the Noam School in Paramus.

Wagner was a guidance counselor at Paramus High School before she was elected to the legislature in 2007. She said that her support for the bill was not a foregone conclusion.

When the committee took its vote, all the Republican members in turn voted to support it. She was the first Democrat whose turn it was to vote.

“It came to me and I thought, ‘here I am.’”

It was a moment of decision. And despite her advocacy for public schools, “a yes popped out of my mouth.”

For her, the deciding factor was that the bill would enable — but not require — school districts to make the decision that a Jewish school is in a child’s best interests.

“I see this as a special education service, as determined by the study team” that evaluates students for the district “and the parents.” As a service, she said, it’s comparable to existing state support for transportation and technology to parochial schools.

“We need to think about the needs of the particular child,” she said.

In a reminder to the advocates for state funding for day schools that theirs is an uphill battle, Wagner said that after voting for the bill, “The very next day my phone rang. It was people saying, ‘how could you do it?’”

Valerie Vainieri Huttle of Englewood was among the bill’s sponsors.

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