Maury Litwack greets each day with urgency, as though he’s in the last 48 hours of a hard fought presidential campaign. It’s as if every phone call, every strategy meeting, every speech encouraging high-school seniors to register to vote, and every conversation with a legislator could be the deciding factor. And after close to eight years at the helm of the Orthodox Union’s Teach Coalition, Litwack has changed expectations about how government can and should support non-public schools. In that time, Litwack has built in the Teach Coalition an entirely new education-funding-advocacy network, one that has long-term ramifications for how Jewish and other non-public school communities can and should partner with state governments to support their children’s education. If successful—and much of it already is—his work will relieve the debt burden that American Jewish families who send their children to Jewish schools suffer under.
That burden is immense—staggering even. On average, it takes between $9,000 and $15,000 a year to educate just one Jewish day-school student at the elementary-school level, with the cost rising as high as $25,000 once that student moves into high school. According to the most recent Pew study of U.S. Jews, Orthodox Jewish families tend to have 4.4 children (the national average is 1.8), so day-school tuition at Orthodox day schools almost certainly eclipses the cost of any other single-family expenditure, including costs for basics like shelter and food.
Before getting to the details of Litwack’s work, it’ll be helpful to see how this situation came about, and just how bad it is. Today’s day schools grew out of the 19th-century European ḥeder, a one-rooms school for instruction in religious studies. Starting in the 1940s in postwar America, Jewish educators began honing what is now a relatively unique dual approach combining religious/Hebrew studies and secular education. Today’s Jewish day schools—exponentially more expensive than their humble ḥeder precursors—augment those older models with flashy innovations, including all the prep-school style bells and whistles of America’s high-end secular private schools.
But, of course, all that costs money—money that municipal, state, and federal governments rarely help pay. Charter schools, funding vouchers for private schools, or magnet-school options are uncommon in states with large Jewish populations, nor are they designed to address the educational goals of most Jewish day-school families. There is no federal tax deduction for non-public-school parents; many states do not allow for any break for parents’ tax burdens, even if they use no part of their community’s public school system.
As an effect, over the last several decades, the cost of Jewish day schools has been blamed for what has become known in the larger Jewish community as the “tuition crisis.” It is a hotly debated issue that many believe has had disastrous effects on every aspect of Jewish communal life.
If parents are not bringing in substantial salaries—$300,000 a year in large cities—then families will have to sacrifice to make ends meet. Many joke that the high- and ever-rising cost of tuition is “the best available birth control” for young Jewish families, because people see the cost of education as a reason to stop having children or to plan smaller families. It also has effects on the parents’ future: the immense financial burden means much less or almost no money left for saving for retirement. Others muse, only half-jokingly, that the best option for getting their children a solid Jewish education without going bankrupt or cashing in their retirement savings is to emigrate to Israel, where school is funded by the government. Matt Williams, a statistician and director of the OU’s data-policy center, said that in a study soon to be released, the cost of tuition and associated costs of living in Jewish communities are among just two issues identified as of greatest concern to the Orthodox community, a view held by at least 85 percent of respondents.
Concerted efforts have been made in recent years to lower the cost of day-school tuition by starting new schools and school models. Several schools, like Yeshivat He’Atid, in Teaneck, New Jersey, and Westchester Torah Academy, in Harrison, New York, run blended-learning models with a reliance on technology for some teaching, initially supported by a group called the Affordable Jewish Education Project. But such schools still required significant investments to become operational, even under vigorous cost-saving models. These, as well as other efforts have, by and large, had limited initial success; while the schools themselves have been successful, their models have not, so far, been duplicated.
But if there is to be a solution, it’s likely going to come from the funding side—which is where Maury Litwack’s advocacy comes in. Litwack’s group has had significant success in a relatively short time. Recent success at the federal level has been profound, particularly in December 2020 with non-public school aid included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. But Litwack’s focus, following the structure of the American educational system, is mostly turned to the states. “What most people don’t realize is that 92 percent of education funding nationwide comes from state and local governments,” he explained in a recent interview.
Litwack’s Teach Coalition now has 35 full-time staffers and offices in six states operating under the umbrella of the Orthodox Union. It grew out of a 2012 merger of three distinct groups: the OU, Brooklyn’s Sephardi community, and six schools, which all initially agreed to pool their funds and advocate at the state level for day schools, similar to the work already being done in ḥaredi communities by Agudath Israel of America. But unlike the Agudah, which continues to advocate on behalf of a relatively homogenous ultra-Orthodox population, Teach Network includes schools practicing a range of observance levels, from the Conservative movement’s Schechter schools in to ḥaredi yeshivas; it has also partnered with advocacy groups outside the Jewish community.
An Orthodox Jew who grew up in a self-described “yeshivish” community in Cleveland, Litwack also spent time at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington before beginning college at the University of Maryland. His early professional life was shaped in the DC area too. Formerly on the staff of two members of the House of Representatives and a federal-affairs lobbyist, Litwack spent much of his time there working on the nuts and bolts of public policy, an often thankless job building coalitions and working toward getting enough votes to pass bills.
Like many former congressional staffers, Litwack parlayed his Hill experience into a lobbying job. He admired the style of longtime lobbyist Eric Olafson, with whom he worked on Florida’s Miami-Dade County federal-affairs team. “He is aggressive,” Litwack said of Olafson. “He took every day as though it was his last day of life. He was my first real exposure to working hard on advocacy issues.” Olafson taught Litwack the value of trial and error. “Not only do you get the door closed in your face, but people yell at you, people hang up the phone. You learn very quickly what works and what doesn’t,” he said. He eventually recorded his thoughts in a 49-page treatise on political advocacy, now available on Amazon as an eBook.
Shortly after taking over Teach Coalition in 2013, he left DC with his wife Elinor and their four children for the Orthodox enclave of Teaneck, New Jersey, and northern New Jersey’s much-lauded Jewish day-school system. He immediately imposed his three cardinal rules on the Teach Coalition’s office in Albany: stick to a single issue, always work in unison and speak with a single voice, and, lastly, “celebrate and thank legislators who help us, and call out ones who don’t.”
This tactical simplicity masked a more complex strategy. “The idea was that if public-school kids were getting state funds for STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math], non-public-school students should get those funds too. We didn’t succeed in our first year, but in year two , we passed the first-ever budget in New York that included non-public-school STEM teacher reimbursement,” he said. This was a watershed moment for the Teach Coalition, essentially a proof-of-concept for branching out beyond New York State. Litwack decided they needed to convince legislators that private-school students, constitutionally, should be provided with the same services as any other student in America.
For this, they needed to expand their argument beyond the usual publicity about amenities, test scores, or college acceptances that private schools utilize to market to potential parents. They drew a new image of non-public schools, casting them as community partners who consistently use local vendors for supplies and construction—as, essentially, good neighbors. Backing this up were location-specific economic-impact studies they commissioned, geared toward proving the notion that non-public schools generate income that flows into the wider communities in which they are situated.
In this work—essentially, in creating paths to government funding for non-public schools in regions of the country previously hostile to such funding—the team was careful to work inside established legal constructs. “When we were passing the legislation it was also important to have some of the best legal minds on it, so we are confident it is constitutionally permissible,” Litwack said. The legislation they’ve pushed for has, by and large, not been challenged.
Indeed, in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, decided in June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can’t refrain from providing funds for religious schools that they would provide to other non-public schools. Since then, with the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the addition of Amy Coney Barrett, the Court has become even friendlier to the matter, which means, Litwack thinks, that the appetite among states to support such programs will grow correspondingly.
What will that look like, exactly? One of Litwack’s ultimate goals is for a portion of parents’ payments to day schools to be counted as tax deductible, though he thinks this a development unlikely to pan out soon. So, in the interim, the targeted approach is continuing— advocacy models must differ or be altered for each state’s particular education proclivities. While there is an existing framework in some states for school choice, vouchers, and tax credits, they are not considered likely bets in Democratic states. “In blue states, they don’t want simply to write a check; they want to understand how the funding is helping students. They are willing to spend, especially when it’s around specific programs such as nursing and safety, funding for teachers, and technological improvements,” Litwack said.
This focus is paired with attempts to engage groups outside the Jewish community—Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Muslim school representatives, for instance, joined a broader coalition with a shared interest in gaining targeted public funding. “I am proud this is a Jewish-led effort, but it’s being perceived—as it should be—as a non-public-school effort,” Litwack said. “Because it should be larger than us, larger than yeshivot or our tuition crises. Funds we receive should be something that the state feels like they are investing in. There should be incentives to states to educate all of their populations.”
Still, since the Teach Coalition’s efforts are still funded entirely by the OU and direct donations, it sees the yeshiva-day-school student, and the day-school system—a $2 billion enterprise teaching more than 200,000 children—as its primary beneficiary. There is concentration on the states where the Teach Coalition has offices: “New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida, and California: These six states represent 90 percent of the day-school students in America,” in Litwack’s words.
Litwack realizes that Democratic states with strong public-education-based labor unions are disinclined to support school choice, tax credits, or voucher systems, but he has learned that there is a way to offset Jewish educational expenses anyway. “Blue states in particular are knocking on our door and they want more because we are not drawing the ire of labor,” Litwack said. For example, New Jersey, a consistently blue state, now allocates $60 million in non-public-school funding, roughly half of which goes to Jewish schools. Five million is allocated toward STEM instruction, and technology and textbook funding remains constant at $6 million and $8 million, respectively.
STEM funding turned out to be just the beginning. In the years following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut in 2012, states created emergency grant programs nationwide to shore up school security. In some states, grants paid for security guards, in others for metal detectors or physical perimeters. With anti-Semitic threats rising nationwide, including the attack at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018 that killed several Jewish students, the Teach Coalition began advocating for additional security funding for non-public schools, on a per-student basis.
There are also some twenty states where school choice, vouchers, or tax credits are deployed to various degrees—including Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, and Wisconsin—and the Teach Coalition also works to advocate for students’ needs there. Florida, which provides state scholarships to non-public schools, has awarded $139 million in scholarships since 2011; Pennsylvania has provided $190 million in state scholarship funding. Forty-five percent of Pennsylvania Jewish day-school students received a tax-credit scholarship this year.
Now grant money is frequently there for the taking. But to take it, grant requests must be written; often when new grants are created, funds just sit in limbo, waiting to be claimed. To that end, the Teach Coalition now has a division dedicated to helping schools write grant proposals, and another division dedicated to grassroots efforts, particularly voter-registration campaigns to raise awareness about Jewish education goals among elected officials. For some time, Litwack had known that those who stood to benefit from his advocacy weren’t taking their preferences to the voting booth. Many people who said they were voters simply were not registered to vote. The group thus made a massive change in its voter-registration efforts. Previously, he said, “we were screaming, ‘Vote! Vote!’ and nothing was happening.”
Instead, during this last election cycle, Litwack’s staff went into high schools in New York and New Jersey and registered eighteen-year-olds, 600 in total. The Teach Coalition team then created advocacy contests, getting students to make videos and social-media postings to encourage others to register, and commit to reminding others to register and vote, via personal requests and follow-ups.
In another targeted voter-registration drive, the team went into ḥaredi communities like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, registering 2,000 people in 2020 by directly responding to the community’s concerns, what Litwack referred to as “obstacles to voting in their own minds.” Some people believed they would be called for jury duty if they voted, for example (they were told they would be called whether they voted or not), and others felt that their single vote would not affect the outcome anyway. Litwack said that explanations of the benefits of “down-ballot” voting were sorely needed in these communities.
Only now, Litwack believes, is his overall strategy starting to bear fruit, instilling real change and reliable funding sources from state partners. In New York, for example, 4 percent of yeshiva and day-school budgets are now covered by state funding. Litwack’s goal is 8 percent by 2025 and 12 percent by 2030. He has similar goals for the other five states in the coalition.
Teach Coalition also has plans to fund physical-education programs and to advocate for nursing-care reimbursements, textbooks, and technology. In some states, such efforts have already garnered some success. After the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools, emergency state funding came through for iPads and laptops. A total of 1,600 Chromebooks were given to NYC non-public-school students, and iPads were provided to all non-public-school students with special education needs. And as a result of Teach Coalition’s federal advocacy, in late December non-public-school students were included in the massive COVID-19 relief bill, with $2.75 billion set aside to reimburse Jewish day schools, Catholic parochial schools, and other non-public schools for pandemic-related spending.
Also because of the pandemic, restrictions on who could receive in-school meals provided by the Department of Agriculture were lifted, because it was impossible to set or identify a predetermined level of need. “There have been literally millions of free kosher USDA meals served for day-school children, which we were able to get for our populations in parts of New York, New Florida, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.” More than 3 million meals have been served in New York, 1.2 million in Florida, 1 million in New Jersey, and 500,000 in Pennsylvania. These programs are continuing as needed.
Litwack maintains that well-reasoned requests for targeted funding, on par with what any public- or private-school student in America receives, will allow for Jewish students to continue their educations without bankrupting their parents. There’s no tuition crisis in Israel or England, Litwack points out, because all schooling in those countries operates under government auspices. Referring back to the OU’s data identifying tuition as just one of two “greatest concerns,” to the community, Litwack argues that he believes the number of people who feel that tuition is their biggest concern is actually higher than a percentage in the mid-80s. He refers to an opt-in study released by Nishma in 2017, which placed the number at closer to 97 percent. “If 97 percent of the community believe it’s the number-one issue, do we treat it like that? Do 97 percent of us show up at the polls? Do 97 percent go to our state capitols to advocate every year, at least once? That’s what I think is required.”