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