HARRISBURG, Pa. — A single mother of three, Deborah Robinson had already made plenty of sacrifices that dwarfed riding two hours from Merion to the state capital to lobby legislators about the importance of state tax credit programs to Jewish day school students.
She was among about 300 people who traveled there via school and charter buses on June 11 from Jewish communities around the state.
The group was motivated by the fear that as lawmakers and the governor wrestle with how to close an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion budget gap for the next fiscal year, they would be tempted to put the $100 million Educational Improvement Tax Credit and $50 million Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit on the chopping block.
The programs give tax credits to businesses that provide educational scholarships to help pay for private school tuition. Students attending Jewish day schools in the Philadelphia area will receive an estimated $5 million in scholarships funded by the two programs for the upcoming school year, according to the Orthodox Union, which sponsored the trip.
The Orthodox community, as well as the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and other federations around the state have been strong proponents of the programs.
Parents, teachers, administrators and students moved throughout the Capitol building to talk about what the financial aid meant to them and their Jewish day schools.
Without that money, Robinson said, her three children would still be struggling at public schools in Chester County instead of flourishing at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.
Robinson said she had to quit her job managing a dental office in 2007, “because we had no quality of life.” She changed careers to accept a more flexible position exercising horses. But that didn’t solve the problems her twin son and daughter and a younger son were having at their Chester County schools.
“Recess was literally Lord of the Flies,” she said. “There was a lot of bullying going on.”
So last summer, Robinson decided to move her family from Kennett Square to Bryn Mawr. Her children started at Barrack, a pluralistic Jewish day school, and Radnor Elementary School, a public school. This coming year, they will all attend Barrack’s middle school and receive $10,000 individual need-based scholarships through the EITC program.
“There is no way it would even be affordable” without the aid, Robinson said of Barrack’s tuition, which is nearly $22,000 per year for middle school and $28,500 for high school.
Robinson has started a job as a loan officer at Wells Fargo and she thinks her children have found a home at Barrack.
“These schools are so important because they reflect my morals and values that I want my children raised with,” she said.
The 40-year-old mother’s story was just one of many from participants on the trip.
Phillip Dolitsky, a sophomore at Kohelet Yeshiva High School, benefits from the OSTC program, which provides scholarships to students who live in areas with the lowest-performing schools so that they can attend a private or a different public school.
Some political insiders say that program could be more vulnerable to cuts than the EITC because only $30 million of the $50 million allocated for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, has been used. In contrast, there is a waiting list for the EITC funding, which does not have a requirement about residency.
Dolitsky lives in the Northeast and would otherwise attend George Washington High School, a place where students told Mayor Michael Nutter that, among other privations, their teachers have had to postpone tests because they did not have enough paper to print them, according to a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
His younger brother attends Abrams Hebrew Academy and also benefits from the tax credit programs.
A self-described “political junkie,” Dolitsky said touring the Capitol and meeting with lawmakers “was an experience that I think very few people get to have.”
Along with other students, he talked with the staff of state Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) about “the amazing teachers, the amazing staff, the great group of friends” that he has at Kohelet, a modern Orthodox school.
Dolitsky is also learning tenor saxophone and plays jazz standards by musicians ranging from John Coltrane to Dexter Gordon during music nights at school.
“It would definitely be a challenge to stay within the private day schools if their funds are cut,” he said.