Sensing an opportunity to make school vouchers a reality in Pennsylvania -- and a potentially big jump in government funds for day school parents struggling with high tuition costs -- the Orthodox Union is investing unprecedented resources in the state.
In the past, the O.U.'s office of public affairs has been more focused on national politics than on what's happening in state capitals. But that has shifted over the past six months.
During that time, the group has hired full-time political directors in three states with sizable Orthodox populations and where school choice legislation is pending: New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as an additional staffer to cover Florida, Texas and Louisiana.
Pennsylvania director Michelle Twersky's primary task will be to lobby on behalf of school choice legislation, mobilize the Orthodox community on the issue and help Jewish day schools find potentially untapped sources of funding. According to the O.U., there are about 1,000 Orthodox day school students in the Philadelphia area and approximately 2,400 throughout the state.
The number of day school students across the movements total an estimated 1,700 in the Philadelphia area and approximately 3,200 students statewide.
Pennsylvania appears closer than ever to adopting a voucher program. The bill being debated in Harrisburg would allow certain students the option of accepting public money either to attend private school or go to an out-of-district public school.
It would also increase the amount of tax credits available for private school partnerships, which Jewish day school students already benefit from.
"Our perspective was there was just so many opportunities for Jewish education in the state of Pennsylvania," said Maury Litwack, director of political affairs for the O.U. "There is a tuition crisis, and whether it is philanthropic funding or government funding, there is more out there that we can go after."
Among Twersky's first major undertakings was helping to organize a May 30 rally in support of school choice legislation. More than 700 people, mostly non-Jews, attended the rally outside City Hall in Philadelphia.
The O.U. co-sponsored the event, along with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and many other groups.
Rabbi Avraham Shmidman of Lower Merion Synagogue, the largest Orthodox congregation in the state, was one of the speakers rallying the diverse crowd.
School choice is needed "for all of our families," he said. "We want it for all of our students, because nothing is more important than all of you."
Shmidman was also among a delegation of Orthodox leaders who met with President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday. Among the agenda items was expanding federal aid to support Jewish day schools.
Last fall, the Pennsylvania State Senate passed a bill that, in its first year, would offer vouchers to students at 142 of the state's lowest-performing schools. That version of the legislation also would provide for a future expansion of the program. It would also increase funding for the Education Improvement Tax Credit from $75 million to $100 million. That initiative offers businesses state tax credits to donate to certain public and private schools and has resulted in millions of scholarship dollars to students at local Jewish day schools.
The House has not acted on the bill and it is generally assumed that the measure lacks the votes needed to pass it. According to several advocates, a new House version of the bill is expected to be introduced.
According to Litwack, a small number of Orthodox students in Northeast Philadelphia might be eligible to receive vouchers initially if the bill passes in its current form. But the hope is that vouchers would eventually benefit a much larger swath of Pennsylvanians.
"When it comes to policy and politics, you must get your pieces on the chess board in order to move around," he said.
The Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of Jewish groups statewide, has avoided taking a position on the Senate bill, which is supported by Gov. Tom Corbett. The PJC has opted to lobby on behalf of increased EITC funding while sidestepping the more controversial issue of vouchers.
The non-Orthodox community has historically been opposed to vouchers, viewing the idea as a breach of separation of church and state. But in the last few years, that opposition has begun to thaw somewhat.
For example, in 2010, the regional board of the Anti-Defamation League broke with long-standing precedent at the organization and backed vouchers. But later that year, the national board reaffirmed the organization's opposition to vouchers.
The Jewish Social Policy Action Network is one group that has come out against the bill. Last October, the group adopted its own policy position on the measure and circulated it to the state's lawmakers.
JSPAN argued that tuition vouchers would not be an adequate response to the crisis faced by low-income students, would threaten the financial health of other public schools and would violate the separation of church and state.