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Op-Ed: Florida Candidates Oppose Scholarships for Needy Students at Jewish Day Schools

[By Rabbi Moshe Lehrfield, Esq.]

Jewish education, a priority for many Jewish families, is at risk in the upcoming November election. For nearly a decade, children from poor families who attend parochial schools, including Jewish schools, have benefited from partial scholarship scholarships provided by the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. These vouchers represent about $2 million of critical funding for many Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish schools throughout the State thereby offsetting the immense fundraising pressures within our community. The program is under siege by some of the candidates for Governor, Attorney General and Chief Financial Officer who have made comments or taken action that ranges from ideological hysterics to nuanced opposition. These candidates have the mistaken belief that support for this scholarship is an attack on public education.

The important role this scholarship program plays in the Jewish community is part of a much larger picture. The 29,000 students who receive these scholarships are predominantly black or Hispanic students from single-parent homes who attend 1,033 parochial schools. It is not surprising that this program enjoys an increasing amount of bipartisan support. When the scholarship was created in 2001, it had the support of only one Democrat. But last spring, when the Legislature approved a significant expansion of the scholarship, it had the support of nearly half the Democrats, a majority of the Black Caucus, and all but one member of the Hispanic Caucus.

Most families who send their children to Jewish schools do so at considerable financial sacrifice. They pay substantial amounts of tuition, which is not tax-deductible, to insure a Jewish education for their children. They also pay taxes to support public schools, for which they receive no benefit. In fact, the public schools benefit because they do not incur the costs to educate these children. Most of these families are not eligible for scholarships. However, the mission of Jewish schools demands that they accept students from homes that cannot afford to pay even small amounts of tuition and the difference is borne by the Jewish community at large, which is notable for its generosity and recognition of Jewish education as a sacred priority. The scholarship is available only to poor families.

Despite the program’s broad political support and its critical role in the Jewish community, the upcoming election in November could threaten it very existence. Dan Gelber, Alex Sink and Lorainne Ausley are all, to varying degrees, still clinging to an outmoded belief that to be a Democrat means to be opposed to all “vouchers.” Because all are running for statewide office, this obsolete manner of approaching public policy is cause for grave concern in our community.

Of them all, Gelber, who is running for Attorney General, remains the most faithful in his almost hysterical opposition. Despite increasing support among his Democratic colleagues, Gelber has voted against every measure of legislation that has either expanded this program or held it more accountable. A close ally of the teacher’s union, he is often quoted in the media as an aggressive opponent of the program. He has claimed that the program is “pathetic” and unconstitutional. As Attorney General, he would have the power to try to stop the program the day he starts the job. His opponent, Pam Bondi is a strong supporter of this program.

Ausley, who is running for state CFO, voted against the formation of the program in 2001 and against its expansion in 2008. She has called this program “a continuous slam at the public school system” that “drain(s) money from the public school system.” Her opponent, Jeff Atwater, has been one of the program’s strongest supporters in the legislature.

Finally, we have the more nuanced opposition of Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for governor. In an education plan that spans 12,500 words, she mentioned not a single word about school choice. This is not an oversight but an intentional omission as she recently said, “I would not advocate for further expansion of those existing (scholarship programs) until we are assured that we are adequately funding public education.”

Sink claims she wants a level playing field, but that field has been so tilted toward traditional public schools that any claim to the contrary is laughable. But it’s also frightening. As governor, Sink would have considerable power to harm this program. In contrast, Rick Scott has pledged to support and expand this program, even if he is successful in phasing out the corporate income tax that mostly sustains it.

Sink, Gelber and Ausley represent a serious threat to the continued access to parochial education for all families in our community. Their opposition is inconsistent with the position of many Democrats, including the Black and Hispanic caucuses. It’s time they recognize what makes an education truly public today.

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(Rabbi Lehrfield is the Vice President of Toras Emes Academy of Miami and practices law in the Miami area.)

4 Responses

  1. Listen, all you dummies, who are easily seduced by a few crumbs thrown your way by Democratic politicians:

    The Democratic Party is the home of todays REAL antiSemites. No, I don’t mean that they want to send you to death camps, Chas VeSholom.

    What I mean is they want to destroy our community by slow starvation–“Slicing the Salami.”–little by little.

    They treat all religious people like seciond-class citizens, inelegible for the basic programs that are granted to all other children in this wonderfully-good-hearted country that we live in.

    In New York city, each child in the Public Government Schools–including illegal immigrants–costs the State $14,000. I SAID EACH CHILD!

    That means that a family with 5 children that just smuggled themselves over the border from Mexico will be funded to the tune of 70,000 dollars per year, courtesy of you working slobs who have the huge school tax taken out of your weekly salaries.

    You, however, will get zilch–nada–because you’re religious.

    But, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, there is a school choice program that gives vouchers to religious schools, including a yeshiva. The public school teacher’s union,
    predictably, challenged it in court–“separation of church and state”–and LOST THEIR CASE.


    So, tell those lying Democratic Party hacks in Florida that vouchers are completely constitutional. The problem is not in the Constitution. The problem is with our Reform and Conservative Secular brethren who hate G-D and the Torah.

    Pleae note that their Republican opponents are for the voucher program–in Florida, and all over the United States.

    When will we learn!

  2. Deepthinker is wrong; vouchers for religious schools are unconstitutional in Florida. The Florida *State* Constitution contains the following “Blaine Amendment”:

    Fla. Const. art. 1, § 3: “There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof. Religious freedom shall not justify practices inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety. No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

    The Florida Courts all ruled in Bush vs. Holmes that the voucher program violated the Florida State Constitution. Interestingly, the Florida Supreme Court did not use the Blaine Amendment to overturn the voucher program, but instead Article IX, Section 1, of the Florida Constitution, which obliges the state government to provide “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.” Candidates Sink and Ausley are clearly referring to that ruling! How can the rabbi complain that a candidate is planning to obey the law? And he is absolutely totally wrong to complain that an Attorney General candidate says that something is unconstitutional when the Florida Supreme Court said so only four years ago! It should be noted that the voucher program in question was permitted to continue, but without participation by religious schools.

    In comparison, the Republican candidate for Governor, Rick Scott, was the CEO of a company that scammed $1.7 billion from Medicare. Now that isn’t quite Bernie Madoff level, but it is getting up there. Would you really vote for Madoff if he were proposing school vouchers? Furthermore, he has proposed to eliminate a corporate tax that is the main source of funding for the existing voucher program for non-religious schools. Scott will not be able to deliver on vouchers any more than will Paladino; neither will endorse the large tax increases that will be needed for a voucher program should the state constitutions ever be changed.

    I don’t understand why the Rabbi wrote this. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is unfamiliar with Florida law. The Blaine Amendments that prohibit government aid to religious schools are a leftover manifestation 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry and should be repealed. But to do that will require a broad coalition and unfortunately the leading voucher supporters outside of the Catholic and Jewish communities have made no secret of the fact that their real goal is to destroy public schools. We should instead be allying with the minority groups who are stuck with bad public schools, and the teachers unions who represent Catholic schools whose members would benefit from the increased funding vouchers would provide — all of whom will then be needed to support the large tax increases required for a voucher program.

  3. deepthinker i couldn’t say it any better. your 100% right. what i find interesting is that the NY jews don’t ‘get it’ but the Florida jews do! VOTE REPUBLICAN!

  4. Can Rabbi Lehrfeld please explain how Rick Scott will continue the Step Up For Students scholarship program without having a state corporate tax to fund it. It seems to me that Rick Scott is more of a threat to the scholarship program tham Alex Sink.

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