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Sunday, December 09, 2018

For many parents, the lack of funding for Jewish day schools in New Jersey is a very real problem. For parents like Rachel Ovitz, it meant a life-changing decision.

Two of Rachel’s four children were born with congenital hyperinsulinism, a rare and potentially fatal disorder. Rachel’s two daughters eventually developed Type 1 diabetes, which requires an insulin pump and heavy monitoring. When it came time to send her daughters to school, she and her husband gravitated toward Politz Day School in Cherry Hill where their other daughter was already enrolled, but Politz does not employ a full-time nurse because nonpublic schools in New Jersey consistently receive less funding for basic school services.

In the end, Rachel left her job in Philadelphia to take a job at Politz as a marketing director so she could give her two daughters the medical attention they needed.

Rachel Ovitz shared her personal story with members of the New Jersey Assembly Budget Committee last month, and she was not alone. In March and April, Teach NJS brought six New Jersey Jewish day school parents and lay leaders to Trenton and Sewell to make the case for fair funding for New Jersey’s nonpublic schools.

The parents came from across New Jersey: Mr. Erik Kessler (The Moriah School, Englewood); Mr. Joe Feldman (The Moriah School, Englewood); Mrs. Rachel Ovitz (Politz Day School, Cherry Hill); Mr. Ralph Hanan (Hillel Yeshiva School, Deal); Mr. Jared Harary (Ben Porat Yosef Yeshiva Day School, Bergen County); Dr. Jacob Bagley (Politz Day School, Cherry Hill).

Teach NJS is part of the Teach Advocacy Network and an arm of the Orthodox Union. Only two years old, the organization works with partner Jewish schools, communal lay leaders, federations and other allied stakeholders to fight for equity for nonpublic schools through greater government funding. Their argument is one of basic fairness.

In New Jersey, nonpublic-school students make up 10 percent of K-12 students, but receive less than one percent of state education funding. Teach NJS’s ask is simple: Nonpublic-school students deserve the same funding for basic education services and tools, including security, nursing aid, technology aid and textbooks. Teach NJS is asking Gov. Chris Christie and the legislature to allocate a minimum of $500 per nonpublic-school student in the fiscal year 2018 budget for the next school year.

Security was a focal point for the testifiers. With the recent spate of bomb threats aimed at Jewish institutions across the country, it is natural for schools to take additional steps to secure their campuses and protect their students. But hiring security guards, building perimeter fences, and buying equipment comes with a steep price tag for parents and schools that are already struggling with high tuition bills.

Last year, Teach NJS helped pass the Secure Schools for All Children Act, which mandated security funding for nonpublic schools of $50 per student. “This was an important victory for the Jewish community,” said Teach NJS co-chairman Sam Moed. “But nonpublic schools still receive far less in security funding than public schools—who receive approximately $144 per child. Doesn’t our state have the obligation to equally protect all children—regardless of what type of school they attend?”

This year, Teach NJS is intensifying efforts on all fronts; dispatching lay leaders to meet with legislators, enlisting grassroots activists, and bringing the Jewish community’s stories directly to the legislative committees where the budget will be written and voted on.

“When Teach NJS asked me to take time off in the middle of a work day to testify before the Assembly Budget Committee, I jumped at the opportunity,” said Erik Kessler, the director of operations at The Moriah School in Englewood. “As a school administrator and a father to three children, this was the most important thing I could do for my students and kids.”

In his testimony to the Assembly committee on March 15, Kessler highlighted the urgency of this fight. “At my school in Englewood, located less than three miles from the George Washington Bridge, nearly 1,000 people a day pass through our gates. Our proximity to New York City, as well as the size of our 14-acre campus, makes us a target.”

On April 13—in the middle of Pesach—Jared Harary and Jacob Bagley presented similar arguments before the Senate. “As a parent, for me, it comes down to two basic principles,” Harary explained. “One, my child and every child deserves to go to school in a safe environment, and two, nonpublic-school students deserve security funding [on par with] public school students.”

Over the next couple of months, the New Jersey legislature will hammer out the nuanced details of an approximately $35 billion state budget. Many different interests will appeal to legislators, but Teach NJS is determined to make sure the collective voice of its community members is louder and stronger.

“Our effort is fundamentally a community-driven, grassroots effort,” Moed added. “We are successful because members of the Jewish, and larger nonpublic-school, communities are actively involved in making the case for funding fairness. And when constituents speak up, the elected officials listen.”

Teach NJS urges members of the New Jersey Jewish community to get involved and become advocates for fairness in education funding. Interested individuals can contact Josh Caplan at [email protected]

By Nachama Soloveichik