A bill aimed at expanding Florida’s tax scholarship program, which provides funds for low-income families to attend the school of their choice, including sectarian schools, passed that state’s legislature on Friday and is awaiting the signature of Gov. Rick Scott.

The State Senate approved the bill 29-11. All 26 Senate Republicans supported the legislation, in addition to three Senate Democrats: Gwen Margolis of Miami and Jeremy Ring of Margate, Fla., both of whom are Jewish; and Darren Soto of Orlando.

Passage of SB 850 was a key aim of the Jewish Leadership Coalition, a South Florida-based agency that advocates on behalf of Jewish day schools and includes members from across the religious spectrum. Representatives of the group had traveled to Tallahassee earlier this year to meet with members of the Florida legislature and express their support for the bill.

The meetings were organized by Rabbi Schneur Zalman Oirechman of Chabad Lubavitch of the Panhandle-Tallahassee, who is the Chabad emissary to Florida’s capital region and has close ties with many in the state government.

“I think it’s a great bill … ,” says Oirechman. It will be “a help to many Jewish families in Florida.”

What was particularly telling about the meetings, the rabbi adds, is that they displayed a clear sense of Jewish unity because “it was all the Jewish organizations working together.”

Among those in attendance was Rabbi Yossie Denburg, dean of the Hebrew Academy Community School in Margate, Fla. Some 150 of the 400 students there receive financial aid through the state program.

“I see the difference in my community this money makes,” says Denburg. “For a lot of people, this money is vital.” For instance, he poses, how can a family that makes $60,000 a year afford their home, utilities, food and transportation, and then manage a tuition bill of $20,000 or $30,000, even if they want their children in a Jewish school and environment?

Now in its 12th year, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program allows businesses to pay some of their tax bill by redirecting those funds to state-approved scholarship agencies, like Step Up for Students. Those funds are then given to families who meet certain financial criteria to offset tuition at a private kindergarten through 12th-grade school of their choosing or to help cover transit costs to a public school in a neighboring district.

The amount of funds in the program is capped annually; for the current school year, that total is $286 million. It will rise to $359 million next year.

Doug Tuthill, president of the state scholarship agency Step Up for Students, who spoke at Hebrew Academy as part of a school event.
Doug Tuthill, president of the state scholarship agency Step Up for Students, who spoke at Hebrew Academy as part of a school event.

To be eligible for the financial aid, a family must meet the criteria for the federal government’s reduced-lunch programs. That means a family of four can make up to $3,677 a month—or $44,123 annually—and still qualify for assistance.

Some 60,000 students received aid for the 2013-14 academic year, and an additional 35,000 others applied for funding but did not receive it. Of those children who got funding, more than 3,000 attend Jewish day schools in the Sunshine State, where tuition can easily top $20,000 per student.

“We gave out over a million dollars in privately funded scholarship money last year, yet unfortunately, there are still people who say to me that even at a reduced price, ‘Rabbi, thank you, but I don’t know how I can do it,’ ” says Denburg.

However, with the scholarship grants—capped at $4,880 per student for those attending a private school—in addition to aid from the school itself, these families are finding that they can now afford to send their children to the school. And, the rabbi adds, they feel “a sense of pride that they can bring something to the table.”

Should the governor sign the legislation, as he is expected to do, the amount of scholarship aid the state provides will be increased to $5,272 annually per student.

‘It’s Their Future’

According to Dr. Allan Jacob, founder and chairman of the Jewish Leadership Coalition, some $6 million has gone to Jewish schools this year through the state’s scholarship initiative.

Rabbi Yossi Denburg, dean of the Hebrew Academy Community School in Margate, Fla., and co-director of Chabad of Coral Springs, Fla.
Rabbi Yossi Denburg, dean of the Hebrew Academy Community School in Margate, Fla., and co-director of Chabad of Coral Springs, Fla.

Noting that for many families, a Jewish education is their No. 1 priority, Jacob says that the community needs to advocate for the scholarship program in greater numbers. He notes that already, representatives from different Jewish schools are pushing for this program.

“All these schools recognize that if we can get money to offset the secular education … we can make it more affordable to the larger population of Jewish youth,” says Jacob, who also serves as president of Toras Emes Academy of Miami and chairman of the Rabbinical Seminary of America.

Among those who have benefited from the program are Naomi Amitay and her family in Southeast Florida. She and her husband, Menashe, have five children—four of them in elementary school. Without the state funding, they were looking at a tuition bill of about $60,000 for a Jewish day-school education.

Amitay first heard about the program when she went on a tour of Hebrew Academy Community School, where she ultimately enrolled her children. Yet she recalls doubting that her family would qualify for it.

“I said: ‘Oh sure, these programs make it so hard; your income has to be like $20,000. I was very skeptical and didn’t want to try, but I couldn’t believe it! I went to the web site and applied, and a week later, I got a letter of acceptance.

Leaders who met with Florida state legislators to push for an expansion of the state’s tax scholarship program included, from left, Maury Litwack, director of State Political Affairs and Outreach for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center; Dr. Allan Jacob, founder and chairman of the Jewish Leadership Coalition; Ari Hollander, executive board member of the Jewish Leadership Coalition; and Elliot Schreiber, director of the Jewish Leadership Coalition.
Leaders who met with Florida state legislators to push for an expansion of the state’s tax scholarship program included, from left, Maury Litwack, director of State Political Affairs and Outreach for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center; Dr. Allan Jacob, founder and chairman of the Jewish Leadership Coalition; Ari Hollander, executive board member of the Jewish Leadership Coalition; and Elliot Schreiber, director of the Jewish Leadership Coalition.

“This really means everything because my kids’ education is more important than anything to me,” she goes on to say. “It’s their future, and to have some sort of program that enables my children to go to the school I want them to go to, and enables me to pay for it, is something special.

“I think we are very fortunate here in Florida,” adds Amitay, who notes that quite a number of her friends also receive aid through the state scholarship program.

Giving Them a Choice

Still, not everyone supports the measure. Critics claim that the program is merely a means to funnel state funds to religious institutions and believe that it takes money away from the public schools. Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such programs are indeed constitutional, making legal challenges in Florida unlikely.

In fact, once the bill is signed into law, not only will the amount of funding awarded to students increase, but more families will be eligible for aid, as it provides partial scholarships for families with an income of 260 percent above the poverty level. Thus, for a family of four with a household income of $62,010, a child would be eligible for 50 percent of the scholarship allocation—about $2,500—beginning in 2016.

Oirechman credits his friend, Tzvi Bogomilsky, for introducing him to Dr. Jacob and the Jewish Leadership Coalition. A South Florida resident and philanthropist, Bogomilsky is a supporter of the Jewish Leadership Coalition.

“The cost of a Jewish day-school education has always bothered me,” says Oirechman. “There are so many Jewish kids who cannot afford" one.

“The Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—spoke many times about America being a country founded upon freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” the rabbi continues, “and there is no reason why people who pay taxes should not be able to benefit from the taxes they are paying.”

Denburg echoes that idea, saying: “If we are truly here to educate our young and not here for the benefit of any vested party or interest, then our goal has to be that we exist to give our children an option—so that children [and their parents] will have a choice in finding a school that suits them.

“No one shoe fits all, and no one school fits all. Every child is unique, and deserves the chance to achieve to the best of his or her abilities.”