While robust discussion and debate on the affordability of yeshiva day schools continues, one thing the COVID-19 era has made clear is that things can always get worse. As yeshivas grapple with unprecedented new scenarios and the considerable costs they carry, they also face the challenge of finding new ways to fund those new expenses.
Fortunately, one source of relief at this time is coming from federal funding. Teach NJ, which advocates for equitable government funding for day schools and yeshivot, helped schools navigate the process to obtain that aid.
In late March, the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, to provide over $2 trillion in economic support to American workers and families, small businesses and local communities. The bill included specific funding for Local Education Agencies (LEAs) and established an Elementary Secondary School Emergency Relief fund (ESSER).
ESSER funds were to be designated for irregular school expenses that resulted from the pandemic, such as PPE, HVAC system upgrades, disinfectant supplies, remote learning technology and/or teacher training, meals for students and barriers for classrooms.
Teach Coalition leaders noted that the language in the CARES Act regarding ESSER funding provided for “equitable services” to be provided in local communities, which the Department of Education defined as support for “nonpublic schools.” Several states and local municipalities across the country challenged this definition, ordering a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education. In response, the Department of Education issued an interim final ruling that gave local school districts two choices: (1) they could allocate funding to nonpublic schools, based on total enrollment, or (2) they could limit the CARES Act funding to lower income students, in both public and nonpublic schools.
Teach NJ leaders found, to their relief, that New Jersey state government leaders did not join in the efforts to challenge the initial U.S. Department of Education definition of “equitable services.” Teach NJ reps got to work right away to inform yeshiva day schools of the opportunity to work with the local school districts, to secure CARES Act/ESSER funds.
Teach Coalition’s director of state political affairs, Daniel Mitzner, expressed gratitude to New Jersey’s state leaders for their decision to embrace the opportunity to use federal CARES Act funds to also support nonpublic schools. “They wanted to do the right thing and get funding out to those that needed it right away. They didn’t want to see any delay.”
Teach NJ staff guided yeshiva day school leaders through the process of how to most effectively contact their local school districts. They held conference calls on allowable uses of the ESSER funds and provided templates for emails to local school district leaders as well as talking points for follow-up contacts.
Through Teach NJ’s efforts, 25 day schools in their network all requested and received support through the CARES Act/ESSER fund in New Jersey, from their local school districts. This brought in approximately $1 million for pandemic-related goods and services to yeshiva day schools in New Jersey. Daniel Mitzner noted that the funds are not allocations but reimbursements, once the pandemic-related goods or services are obtained.
Judah Rosenbaum, executive director of the Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), praised Teach NJ for their assistance to his school and others. “We are deeply appreciative of the efforts of Teach NJ in advocating for equitable funding for nonpublic schools. While legislation was being drafted for the CARES Act, Teach NJ organized conference calls to ensure all of its member schools were aware of all potential government funding opportunities.”
He added: “We plan to use our (CARES Act/ESSER) funding to hire additional facilities’ personnel and to purchase more cleaning supplies and PPE. All of our yeshiva day schools and high schools are facing significant costs in reopening our schools. This government funding certainly assists in offsetting these unforeseen expenses.”
Rabbi Aryeh Stechler, rosh yeshiva of Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck, praised Teach NJ for their assistance and said, “The ESSER funds will enable our school to redesign its building to allow all our students to attend the school, every day, in a healthy and safe way.” He added, “Teach NJ has transformed Jewish education in New Jersey, rallying all the yeshivot together, sharing their expertise in lobbying government, and helping us to work together in the best way. They have been a great blessing to us.”
Teach NJ and the Teach Coalition continue to keep their eyes on federal and state governments, seeking new opportunities to secure funding for yeshiva day schools and other non-public schools. As Katie Katz, Teach NJ’s executive director, stated: “A second round of federal funding is under consideration in DC now. The Teach Coalition and the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center are working on this, to try to ensure that support for nonpublic schools are included in it.”