July 20, 2024
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OU’s Teach Coalition Expands to Florida

(Courtesy of Teach FL) Tuition woes, emergency fundraising, late payroll…sound familiar? Unfortunately, the struggle to stay afloat is a well-worn chapter in the chronicles of many Jewish day schools. Thanks to Teach Florida, a branch of the OU’s Teach Coalition, two Miami-based institutions can finally stop surviving and start thriving.

Ten years ago, Yeshiva Elementary School (YES) and Yeshiva Toras Chaim Toras Emes (YTCTE) were feeling the pinch of financial strain. “The classes were larger with one teacher trying to teach at many levels,” recalls Rabbi Moshe Bernstein, CFO of YTCTE. Much of the two schools’ parent population had trouble affording full tuition, and some opted for public school. Many students were waitlisted.

“In the old days, basically all of the focus of fundraising was just on scholarships,” said Rabbi Chaim Friedman, director of development at YES. “We had to raise the difference between post-tax dollars and families with around four children in school.”

As members of any Jewish community know well, the financial demands of living a religious lifestyle can make it difficult to keep up with expenses, even with two decent paychecks. The numbers don’t always add up.

Teach Florida’s field director, Daniel Aqua, followed his passion to seek out new avenues from which to gather more funds to help these schools. “I was looking to make a difference in solving the tuition crisis through government funding,” he said, “and the only people doing it in an organized fashion was Teach Coalition.” That’s why Aqua joined Teach Florida.

Working together with schools, families and other school choice supporters, Teach Florida advocated in Tallahassee, the state capitol, to expand the scholarship programs to help more families. Teach Coalition founder Maury Litwack and Teach Florida chairman Dr. Allan Jacob began advocating in 2013 to give a voice to more nonpublic schools inside state government.

While Florida’s tax-credit program had been in effect since 2001, it was only able to serve a small number of students. With the efforts of the Teach Florida team and its Florida school choice partners, scholarship programs ballooned to a distribution of more than $700 million to almost 130,000 students attending nonpublic schools.

“When I came in 2010,” said Rabbi Bernstein, “YTCTE was receiving a little over $300,000 from Step Up for 650 students. This year it’ll probably be close to $3.3 million for 1,080 students.”

What does this mean for YTCTE and its families? “For the last decade,” Rabbi Bernstein continued, “we’ve been able to keep tuition flat or only raise it minimally while making significant investments in the quality of our education.” YTCTE is now able to offer special education, accelerated math and advanced Talmud classes.

Rabbi Friedman has also seen enormous benefits. “We bought a new campus, redid the old one, grew our special ed program and added 20 resource rooms,” he said. “It took away the constant pressure of just getting by and [allows us] to focus on expanding our programming.”

Both schools have grown tremendously in their student bodies as the stress of payment is mitigated by state funds. On average each eligible student receives $7,000 towards tuition.

Until a year ago, students who qualified to receive funds for one year would still need to be reevaluated each subsequent year. As such, parental income that increased a small amount above the bracket would render their family ineligible for the scholarship. Parents were finding themselves in a catch-22 of having to turn down work promotions in order to maintain eligibility.

To resolve this issue, Teach Florida successfully advocated for a change in the law last year that has taken state aid to a whole new level. Now students who qualify for the scholarship will continue to receive it for the entire duration of their schooling until 12th grade.

“It’s a fantastic law, knowing once you qualify you don’t lose it,” said Rabbi Bernstein. Rabbi Friedman echoed the sentiments. “It allows us to budget for the future,” he said. “We can be confident in opening new programs knowing that the money will be there.”

Teach Florida’s success in advocating for state funds has breathed new life into these Torah institutions. More than 50% of students at both schools are now receiving scholarships. “Ten years ago,” said Aqua, “schools could not make payroll. Now it is all about what can we add to improve the quality of education—enrichment programs, adding resources.”

“I deal directly with families that struggle, and it’s painful and difficult,” Rabbi Friedman shared. “We used to have a lot more of those conversations, and now we have a lot less. It’s been a lifesaver.”

Said one day school parent, “Even with a steady income, it’s hard to get by. We are so grateful to be living in South Florida where the scholarships offered to us through Step Up for Students have made a huge difference in our bottom line and our ability to send our children to the yeshivas we choose.”

The Teach Florida team has now set its sights on working to increase the number of qualifying students as well the amount awarded to each child. As Aqua affirms, “Every single kid makes it worth it.”

Teach Florida has secured more than $125 million in scholarship and security funding for Jewish day schools and families since 2013.

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