Opinion | Pennsylvania’s Jewish Students Are Safer Than Ever, But More Needs to Be Done

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By Arielle Frankston-Morris

In the coming weeks, more than 3,000 of Pennsylvania’s Jewish students will head back to day schools around the state — many in the Pittsburgh area. For many parents, the usual routine of homework, test studying preparation and that nagging fear of school security will return. Parents send their children to school each day excited for the experiences and education they will gain, but as attacks on schools and in the Jewish community have proliferated, many are left wondering if their children will be safe in school.

The Anti-Defamation League reports that there were 48% more anti-Semitic episodes in 2018 than in 2016, and 99% more than in 2015. We in Pennsylvania felt this first-hand last October when members of the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation were gunned down while attending Shabbat services. This isn’t just something we read about in the papers or watched on television. It was something that directly impacted the fabric of our community and left us wondering if we’re safe going to synagogue on Shabbat morning and if our children will be safe in school.

The good news is that our politicians are listening.

In July, Gov. Tom Wolf and Pennsylvania’s General Assembly passed a state budget that included an unprecedented $3.2 million — a 597% increase over last year — to dramatically expand security grant resources for Jewish and other religious and nonpublic K-12 schools. As a result, this year, for the first time, nonpublic schools (including our day schools and yeshivas) will be allowed to use the grants to pay not only for school police officers but also to hire other security and resource officers; purchase and install a range of security equipment such as fencing, lighting, bulletproof doors and windows and alarm systems to bolster building safety; and to provide educators, students, parents and guardians with security and violence prevention programming.

These legislative wins reflect the goal of Teach PA: to support a strong Jewish present to ensure a strong Jewish future. And Jewish education and basic safety are key. Since our founding in 2013, Teach PA, a division of the Orthodox Union’s Teach Coalition, has been advocating for equitable government funding for Pennsylvania nonpublic schools. We’ve made tremendous strides in the areas of security, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program and funding for educational resources for schools, but there is still much to be done.

This coming year will be another bold one. The security program is by no means broad enough and funded appropriately to keep Pennsylvania’s kids safe. It’s a start, and we are proud of the campaign thus far. With continued coalition building with other faith groups and school associations, we will push a safety agenda forward and keep identifying champion legislators.

There are other policy items on our agenda for the coming legislative season, including an increase in the EITC program, we will also be working to increase the funding available for textbooks, which has remained stagnant for five years now despite the increases in Basic Education Funding that should necessitate nonpublic school increased textbook, materials and services funding. And lastly, as health safety is inadequate, we will continue our work to keep students safe and healthy with broader school nurse services.

There is a special excitement in the air as students head back to school and a new year begins. And yes, it’s understandable that Pennsylvania parents — like all parents — worry about the safety of their children while they are in school. However, the good news is that our politicians are listening, and we’ve made wonderful strides in getting more security funding from them.

You, too, can make a difference here. If we want our state legislature to include all students in the provision of funding for security protection, then we need to speak up and show up. Ask how your local politicians stand on school security funding for nonpublic schools. Ask them if they are following what’s happening in other states. You can call their offices, send them an email, partner with Teach PA on a program in your neighborhood, but most importantly, please remember to show up and vote. No election is too small when it comes to showing our elected officials what matters most to us: our children’s security.

Arielle Frankston-Morris is the executive director of Teach PA. For more information, visit teachcoalition.org/pa.

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