By Maury Litwack
The sweeping and surprising electoral results from last week’s election transformed the makeup of the U.S. Senate, overturned several gubernatorial races and introduced entire ideological shifts in state legislatures. People and pundits throughout the country are debating the factors that led to the Republican sweep, including economic issues and the President’s popularity, or lack thereof. What isn’t being discussed, however, is the impact this election will have on future funding for Jewish education.
Let’s look at the races that impact Jewish education.
In Florida, Governor Rick Scott won re-election in one of the most hotly contested and well-funded races. Right in the middle of the race, a lawsuit was raised challenging the state’s educational tax credit program, which provides funding for 70,000 low-income children and close to $9 million in funding for Florida Jewish day schools. Challenger Charlie Crist chose to support this lawsuit and Governor Scott voiced his opposition. Private school parents rallied against Charlie Crist and, in an interesting turn of events, Crist lost by about 70,000 votes – the same number of students who benefit from the program.
Candidates who campaigned proudly and openly on the issue of government funding for non-public education won numerous gubernatorial races. Republican Governor-Elect Bruce Rauner of Illinois was vocal about his support for non-public school education, leading with the statement, “We should empower parents to choose their schools.” Re-elected Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is nationally recognized for his aggressive pro-school choice positions. Re-elected Georgia Governor Nathan Deal supported expanding the state’s existing tax credit program. Similar positions were held by winners in Maryland, Tennessee, Kansas, Nebraska, South Carolina and Ohio. All of these candidates supported programs that can potentially deliver transformative funding to the Jewish day schools in their states.
While nearly all of these victories were for Republican candidates, several victorious Democratic governors staked out positions supporting non-public school education as well.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo penned an op-ed prior to the election bragging about his support for non-public and Jewish education. The piece articulated his vision for greater support for non-public schools and his pledge to continue working for the passage of the Education Investment Tax Credit, which would provide a “dollar-for-dollar state tax credit for any person or business that makes a donation to public schools or private scholarships for students attending non-public schools.” He explained that the bill would “encourage charitable donations to non-profit organizations that provide scholarships for students to attend a non-public school or a non-resident public school that best meets their needs.”
As a potential Democratic presidential candidate, Governor Cuomo’s support for non-public schools and the controversial tax credit bill portends a changing of the tide on this issue and reflects the added political pressure our community is placing on candidates to articulate what they will do to support Jewish education. When OU Advocacy’s Pennsylvania team discovered – through a candidate survey – that then-candidate Tom Wolf’s position on private school tax credits was potentially harmful to non-public schools, community members reached out to him to explain how the programs are real lifelines to Pennsylvania Jewish day schools and yeshivas. Governor-Elect Wolf has since stated that he would continue to support funding to the Commonwealth’s two critical educational tax credit programs.
But this election wasn’t just about candidates taking positions that impact Jewish education or politicians incorporating the Jewish day school community concerns within their policy platforms. This election also demonstrated our ability to galvanize at the voting booth when Jewish education is at stake. OU Advocacy launched a major Get Out the Vote campaign urging the New York Jewish community to vote yes for the Smart Schools Bond Act of 2014, which could provide up to $32 million to New York Jewish day schools and yeshivas for technology equipment and upgrades. The Smart Schools Bond Act was approved by more than 61 percent of the voters and saw a nice turnout and response throughout the NY Jewish day school world.
The Jewish day school community must continue to build on the momentum we reached during this year’s historic election. Newly-elected officials with positive positions on non-public education must hear from our community that we stand by them and will work with them to see their policies come to fruition. Day schools and yeshivas that mobilized their parents to go to the polls and vote must highlight the victories achieved in this election and ask that parents continue to focus on Jewish education in future elections. And the Jewish community must spend the time, resources, and effort to work with our coalition partners throughout the non-public school community to continue to make Jewish education a policy issue with electoral implications.
This election proved that policy victories for Jewish education are possible. Now it is time to replicate the success reached in a handful of states across the country.
Maury Litwack is the Director of State Political Affairs for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, the non-partisan public policy arm of the OU.