As any Jewish grandmother will tell you, a “thank you” note goes a long way.
And, although some mothers may disagree, it’s never too late to send one.
Teach PA, an effort of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, encouraged Philadelphia Jewish day schools to send hundreds of letters of appreciation to state legislators and the governor’s office in support of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. Each program allows businesses and other entities to reduce their tax burdens by funding private school scholarships.
“There are threats to the tax credit programs, and what we really have to be doing is showing our support for the programs and how much we appreciate them and how it is so critical to our community that these programs continue,” said Arielle Frankston-Morris, director of Teach PA.
To show that support and appreciation, Frankston-Morris came up with an idea for a letter-writing campaign. Her organization has collected letters written by students of all ages from Jewish day schools explaining why they value education.
Some included more detailed aspirations, while others just said “thank you.”
The letters were sent to offices in Harrisburg to show that even in a deficit, “this is a program that is so important and so valued,” said Frankston-Morris. “It’s not just the advocates in Harrisburg saying this is important. It’s really the families and the teachers and the students.”
A couple weeks ago, some of those students went to Harrisburg themselves to speak on behalf of the EITC program.
Several groups from Philadelphia Jewish day schools joined up with the REACH Foundation in Harrisburg for the visit. They combined with other students from the area — independent, Catholic and other private schools — to rally in support of the tax credit programs.
Older students had the opportunity to meet with legislators.
“They learned what it’s like to go to the Capitol, have a meeting with a legislator,” she added.
Gov. Tom Wolf announced in February a new budget that would slash $100 million from tax credit programs — though it is unknown how that would affect either program.
“There is scrutiny of the programs right now,” Frankston-Morris noted. “There is prioritizing of the programs and trying to understand the value of each of the programs, and that’s what we’re trying to prove — that it’s valuable and we cannot have it go anywhere.”
While the pipe dream is to increase funding for EITC, just maintaining funding levels for this year is her current goal.
“You can talk to any school in the Greater Philadelphia area — they would be at such loss if not for EITC. There’s so many families that would not be able to give their kids what they want to be able to give them,” she said.
So far of the legislators they spoke to, according to Frankston-Morris, they said EITC is one of the most “popular” tax credit programs.
“Likely this year they won’t be able to increase it, but they will be able to maintain it,” she said. “We can’t take it for granted any year that we’ll have the programs at the same levels. And especially in a year like this, we have to work really, really hard.”
In addition, Teach PA is also garnering security funding.
Local day schools have been able to apply for grants for security guards and the like, but again, due to financial constraints, such funding might get cut.
The House recently passed a budget that would cut the Office for Safe Schools, which administers grant programs for private schools. Potentially, schools like Kohelet Yeshiva would lose such grants.
When students brought this to the attention of legislators in Harrisburg, most were unaware of the potential cut, Frankston-Morris said. “So many things pass their desks every day; so many bills and so many decisions they have to make. We have to call to their attention the issues that are really important.
“It’s always difficult because there’s financial realities and then values,” she continued. “Our job is to say [for] the safety of students, you shouldn’t be looking at dollars and cents.”
Frankston-Morris pointed to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who, in February, granted $25 million to security for schools that are at risk because of their beliefs or creed in light of recent threats.
“Those are things that governors and legislators can do. Our job is to encourage them to do that and show that you have to do that,” she said.
For a campaign this critical, Frankston-Morris said the initiative has to come from a grassroots engagement.
“We need schools and parents to make their voices heard,” she said, “and be proud of the Jewish education that they’re providing for their kids.”
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