The Jewish view on school choice has shifted over the years, which helps explain why Jews are split over whom to support in the upcoming primary race for mayor.
Eric Cohen has two middle school-age children doing well at Julia R. Masterman, a magnet public school in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia, but he says he doesn’t think the education they are receiving is particularly good.
A computer engineer who lives in Powelton, Cohen, 42 and Jewish, said he is still hoping that his children will attend a public high school, but he has concerns about the lack of city and state funding for education and hopes the next mayor will work to remedy the situation.
“I want them to have a good, safe education, and it seems no one wants to pay for it,” he said, adding that he thinks opening new charter schools — an idea pushed by one mayoral candidate — could “starve” the already cash-strapped public schools.
The issue of school choice has been a divisive one in the Democratic mayoral primary, where six candidates are vying to win the party’s nomination on May 19, which would then likely be an easy path to City Hall. Due to the funding crisis in Philadelphia public schools, education has been a top focus of the mayoral race.
With just days left until the primary, former City Councilman Jim Kenney and state Sen. Anthony Williams are leading in the polls; the sole Jewish candidate, former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, is trailing in third place. The other candidates in the race are Doug Oliver, who worked in Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration and for PGW; Philadelphia Judge Nelson Diaz; and Milton Street, a former state senator and brother of a former mayor.
Among the city’s Jews and beyond, there are those who believe that opening new charter schools and providing tax credits for scholarships to allow students to attend private schools would break the status quo and help students who aren’t succeeding in Philadelphia public schools.
Jews outside the Orthodox community used to be fairly uniform in opposing the idea of school choice because they worried vouchers — or any form of government support for parochial schools — would hurt public schools and blur the line between church and state. Many still feel that way, but, as evidenced by this election, the local Jewish electorate is no longer of one mind regarding the use of public money to fund something other than traditional public schools.
“Our community has been really good at telling other people what choices they shouldn’t have, whereas our children or grandchildren don’t have those limitations,” said David Hyman, an attorney long involved in local politics and Jewish causes.
Jacques Lurie, who served for 10 years on the board of the School District of Philadelphia, said that when he started his tenure in 1990, “there was no question as to where the Jewish community stood. There was a very clear opposition to vouchers, and the emphasis was on supporting public education.
“Today you don’t hear the volume that you heard back then from the community,” said Lurie, who now serves as executive director of Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in the Northeast.
Williams has been a strong supporter of school choice, pushing for the expansion of charter schools during his campaign. As a legislator and gubernatorial candidate in 2010, he also was a proponent of state programs allowing companies that provide scholarships to low-income students for private school tuition to get tax credits.
Williams, who has strong ties to the Jewish community, is being heavily backed by three Jewish founders of the investment firm Susquehanna International Group. Together, the founders — Joel Greenberg, Jeff Yass and Arthur Dantchik — donated $5 million to Williams’ gubernatorial campaign and this time have given $6.65 million to date through a super PAC to support his bid for mayor.
Greenberg, who has attracted widespread media attention for his role in the race, said he and his partners have no ulterior motive in supporting Williams.
“Everything we do for education is purely charitable,” said Greenberg, who lives on the Main Line and whose family foundation, Seed the Dream Foundation, supports many Jewish and educational causes, including Israel education and advocacy and Holocaust education.
“So when in the press it says that we are the ones interested in privatizing the system or running it for our benefit, those are malicious, defamatory statements. For us, it’s totally a civil rights issue,” said Greenberg, who noted that Kenney is heavily supported by super PACs connected to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and other labor groups.
“The city right now is facing a crisis, with the vast majority of kids stuck in failing, oftentimes violent schools,” he said. “Any person of good conscience who does not support school choice, I think either doesn’t understand the situation or has an ulterior motive that’s designed to help adults and not children.”
Beyond the private financial firm, the school choice issue continues to reverberate in the Jewish community.
Williams met in July with a contingent of Jewish day school parents, teachers and students who were in Harrisburg to lobby for the state educational tax credits programs, which also benefit Jewish day school children. The mission was organized by the Orthodox Union but also included representatives of non-Orthodox day schools,who also increasingly depend on scholarship funds to help finance their students’ education.
Much of the organized Jewish community, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, supports the state programs known as the Educational Improvement Tax Credits and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credits, which, combined, allow for $150 million in tax credits to businesses that contribute.
However, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, a liberal group active on political issues, continues to oppose state education tax credit programs because, as board member Jeff Pasek told the Jewish Exponent in 2012, they represent “a diversion of state tax money to private schools, thus removing those funds from the state’s ability to direct them to where they can best support the state’s educational policy.”
Others believe that Williams’ ideas on education offer an alternative to the ideas that have shaped the community’s stance on education and haven’t worked, said Hyman.
“Compared to where I was 25 years ago, we were just knee-jerk against anything that looked different than the public school model. We all need to stretch and be willing to try things that we haven’t tried in past decades,” said Hyman, a resident of Chestnut Hill who traveled to Israel with Williams in 2013 and is supporting him in his mayoral bid.
“I find his temperament to be balanced and his political philosophy to be practical,” he said.
Other Jewish voters, who also cite education as their top concern, say they are supporting Kenney or Abraham.
Ellen Kaplan, a former policy director of the government watchdog group, the Committee of 70, said she doesn’t like the big money being spent on the race, but she is supporting Kenney, who, along with Abraham and other candidates, is opposed to vouchers. Kenney also has called for a moratorium on building new charter schools because of funding limitations and has proposed raising property taxes to provide additional money to public schools.
“I don’t know that it is any specific issue that he’s talked about in terms of public education as much as I trust his leadership, that he’s a smart, pragmatic, thoughtful leader who I believe will work closely with city council,” said Kaplan.
Ken Weinstein, a real estate developer who lives in Mount Airy, thinks that opening new charter schools and providing state-funded scholarships drain money from the traditional public schools.
“For me, besides wanting to provide good education, it’s an economic development tool for increasing property values and attracting more people to our city,” said Weinstein, a former chief of staff for the late City Councilwoman Happy Fernandez.
Some in the Jewish community say they are supporting Abraham because they do not think she will be influenced by either the teachers’ union or the school choice supporters providing funding through PACs. She has called for a moratorium on charter schools and has said she would take the state to federal court to ensure the city receives adequate funding for schools.
Among this group is Ruth Horwitz, an attorney who spent 40 years as an administrator at various Philadelphia public schools. She said she is supporting Abraham in part because she has not accepted outside money and her focus has been on how to increase funding for schools. A Northeast Philadelphia resident, Horwitz retired from the district in 2000 but is still active in the community — she serves on two police advisory boards — and said the schools are in “much worse” shape than when she left.
She hasn’t fully made up her mind on school choice because, she said, “I don’t want everyone to be leaving the public schools. With school choice, anyone who has a parent who is sharp is going to move away from where they are. I’d rather have parents work in the current school community and make it better.”
Horwitz envisions a middle ground between private and public where, for example, private companies or nonprofits would sponsor a school and provide services — nurses, field trips, technology — or mentorship that is missing because of inadequate funding. She instituted a similar program as an administrator.
“The key thing is we’re not supporting schools, and teachers have to go out and buy their own stuff,” she said.
Greenberg emphasized that he wants to see public schools succeed, but that without school choice, “those parents who can afford it will move to the suburbs or send their kids to private schools, while others who cannot afford those options are stuck in violent schools.”
“Anyone who denies another parent such a choice is a hypocrite because they are asking another parent to sacrifice their child when they would not sacrifice their own child,” he said.
Lurie, the former school board official who declined to say whom he is supporting, in some sense backed up Greenberg’s point: The Jewish community has not so much shifted on the issue of school choice, he asserted, but rather people are talking about it less or have opted out of the conversation entirely because they have been moving to the suburbs.
“The question is always, how does it affect me?” asserted Lurie. “And if it’s not affecting me directly, do I scream and yell as loudly as if it affected me?”