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School choice gives parents the freedom to choose a school based on their child’s needs, not their ZIP code. It allows parents to use all or part of the educational funding allocated by the government for their child and use it at a public or private school of their choice.

Let’s get straight to the point. Which state has the best school voucher program in the country?
We actually created a chart (below) just to avoid answering that question. It details the different scholarship programs in states with Orthodox Jewish day schools.

Whether I answer it or not, the question needs to be modified. It’s missing the words, ‘for my child’. There are more than 50 scholarship programs in more than 25 states and there is no perfect program or even a “best” program. For example, Nevada just passed a unique program that includes 93% of the students in the state, yet excludes current private school students. Is that the best program for parents who have already sacrificed to send their child to a private school? No. So the real question is, what program is best for your child?

Eligibility and scholarship amounts vary widely and depend on many factors: How much money do you earn? Do you live in an eligible geographic area? Did your child attend public school last semester? Does your child have special needs? Every state has to deal with its political realities and therefore most programs included some compromises and limit eligibility or the potential size of the voucher.

Also, while many people are familiar with the term voucher, many states have scholarship programs that are funded through tax credits.

What’s the difference between a voucher and a tax credit? Either way, doesn’t the parent get money?
For the most part, parents care about the result, not the method, but the distinction is important. It could mean thousands of dollars per child.

A voucher involves direct funding from the state. All or part of the state’s education funding follows the child to the school of choice in the form of a check. The voucher is made out in the parent’s name so that it avoids constitutional questions of separation of church and state, but sent to the school to ensure that the funds are used exclusively for their intended purpose.

A scholarship tax credit program uses a third party to separate the state from the funding of scholarships. Corporate or individual taxpayers make contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations and receive a state tax credit for all or part of their donation. The scholarship organization then awards scholarships to eligible students. The parent applies to the scholarship organization or the school rather the state to receive funding.

The government doesn’t have as much of an ability to be flexible, so voucher programs will usually award a flat amount ranging from $2500 in Louisiana to $27,000 for students with Autism in Ohio. Voucher programs are also more likely to have more restrictive rules on students and participating schools such as requirements to take the state test, and rules  governing the curriculum and admission policy of private schools.

Scholarship organizations have more flexibility and can decide to give $2000 to a student attending a school with low tuition and $7000 for a student attending a more expensive school. This flexibility can also mean that despite receiving a generous scholarship, the parent may still be responsible for paying the difference between the scholarship and full tuition. Ohio’s voucher program, on the other hand, doesn’t allow schools to charge low-income parents any additional tuition aside from the voucher amount. So a voucher of $4650 in Ohio is potentially more valuable to a parent than a $7000 scholarship in Arizona.

The newest form of private school choice is an education savings account (ESA) which is essentially a debit card that can be used for tuition as well as tutoring, materials, and even college.

Why not simply give parents a tax credit for their tuition expenses?
In 1961, Agudath Israel’s late president Rabbi Moshe Sherer testified before Congress in support of tax deductions for private school tuition and later went on to chair the national effort to enact a federal tax credit for tuition expenses. Those efforts were not ultimately successful although the topic has been raised many times since then and continues to be examined. Federal deductions for tuition is a complicated legal issue. Some states provide a deduction or tax credit for education expenses, however, the amount of relief it provides is often minimal (not more than a few hundred per child) and unless it is refundable tax credit, it will only help those earning enough money to pay a significant amount of state income taxes. Scholarship tax credit programs pool together the contributions so that organizations can award meaningful scholarships which provides the neediest parents the freedom to choose a school that was otherwise out of their reach.

In states where they have robust school choice programs have Jewish day school tuition rates gone down?
This year, well over $30 million in scholarships were generated for students choosing Jewish day schools thanks to school choice programs around the country. School choice programs may never succeed in reducing overall day school tuition rates as costs continue to rise, but it can keep the rates of those paying full tuition from rising even faster. More importantly, for hundreds of day school parents in Ohio and Milwaukee, where low – income families can’t be charged any tuition above the voucher amount, the tuition bill for their children is…zero. Scholarship programs around the country have made day school affordable and in some cases tuition affordability has also led to new families moving into those cities or neighborhoods Finally, it is in parents best interest to have schools which are academically strong and fiscally stable. Agudath Israel directors are working with coalition partners and legislators in many states to enact new laws and expand existing programs to allow every parent to choose the school that is most appropriate for their child.

Why do voucher programs seem to focus on low-income families? Middle income families pay more taxes and never seem to be eligible for government or other type of benefits?

While Agudath Israel is fighting around the country for universal school choice, it is easier said than done. Even if there are many sound rationales for including middle income families (like the education tax credit bill recently passed by the New York Senate and proposed by Governor Cuomo) you need votes to get legislation passed. Politicians have an easier time to find enough votes for programs that help an underprivileged group such as low income or students with special needs. We continue to make the case that a limited program will inevitably have more difficulty showing success and will be used to show that school choice doesn’t work. Also, the opposition will fight just as hard against a single voucher, so you may as well as help as many children as possible for the same political “price”.

Does contacting legislators actually help?
An email from one constituent may not sway a legislator who has already decided how to vote, but a large number of personal letters, calls, emails and social media posts from constituents who vote can have an impact on a legislator on the fence.

Is it too early to start preparing for National School Choice Week 2017?
It is never too early to start preparing for next year. National School Choice Week (January 22-28, 2017), is a celebration of all educational options, including private, religious education.As a longtime supporter of school choice, Agudath Israel of America has been an active participant since the first NSCW in 2011. More than 16,000 events took place this year, and organizers hope to shatter that record next year.

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