Interview with Allen Fagin, executive vice-president of the Orthodox Union, on education policy
Q: Why should people in New York’s Jewish communities care about what happens in the New York budget?
A: The fact is the New York State budget provides tens of millions of dollars in funding that can be accessed by yeshivot and day schools. State and local budgets impact nearly every facet of our daily lives from property taxes to yeshiva tuition. To ignore what happens in Albany is not only a dereliction of our duty as citizens, but contrary to our community’s self-interest.
That is why it’s so critical for people to get involved, find out what the issues are, and make their voices heard in local elections and in Albany. This year, the New York legislature and Governor Cuomo passed and signed a budget for the 2017-2018 year that allocated nearly $300 million for nonpublic schools, including Jewish day schools and yeshivot.
This money will be used to pay for state mandated services in Jewish day schools, security guards, security equipment like video cameras, perimeter fences, and bullet-proof glass, technology, and, for the first time in New York State history, this budget will start reimbursing schools for math and science teachers.
This money will make a huge difference for our schools, but it only happened because parents, school administrations, lay leaders, and even students got involved in public policy. You cannot get results without getting involved.
Q: What are you doing differently from other organizations?
A: A few years ago, the OU decided that it needed to change the way we advocate for our community – especially in Albany. Teach NYS invested heavily to make sure we deployed the necessary resources – the best strategists, the best lobbyists, and the best communications professionals in the industry working on for cause. We have professionalized the way we advocate for education issues, just like Microsoft or Google advocate for technology policies of importance to them. This new approach has yielded significant results in the past four years.
Q: Why did you focus specifically on funding for STEM subjects in the 2018 budget?
A: The science, technology, engineering, and math fields (STEM) are critical to workforce development and making sure our kids, and all kids across the state, have the skills needed to compete in the modern job market. Gov. Cuomo has made STEM education a priority for his administration, so it was an excellent opportunity to make sure all children – no matter what school they attend – have access to a quality STEM education.
Q: Do you think your recent successes in NYS will have an impact on legislatures in other states?
A: Gov. Cuomo is famous for saying, “When New York leads, others follow,” and I absolutely agree with him. New York has been a leader in funding for nonpublic schools, and we are beginning to see other states following New York’s example. The OU’s Teach Advocacy Network has operations in five other states (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, and Florida – which collectively are home to approximately 88% of yeshiva and day school students in the United States), where we are working on enacting legislation that will benefit the Jewish community. For example, in Florida, the state legislature just passed a first-ever $645,000 grant for Jewish schools to upgrade security. In the wake of a recent uptick in anti-Semitic incidents, these funds will make a big difference for Florida’s Jewish schools.
Q: This all sounds great, but when does it translate into lower tuition costs?
A: That’s never an easy answer. Tuition didn’t get to this level overnight and it won’t roll back overnight. Change often happens incrementally, and we have certainly seen progress. Many, as a result, have been able to hold the line on tuition. But that’s not enough. We will not be content until we see meaningful decreases in tuition costs for our families.
Q: What happens next? What’s the plan for next year and the year after that?
A: In the four years since the OU and Teach NYS joined together, we have seen an increase in millions of dollars in government funds going to nonpublic schools. Each year, we build on the success of the year before, and that is exactly what we plan on doing. In the last four years, the amount allocated by New York State to nonpublic schools has increased from $111 million to $289 million – more than doubling. We are going to continue to work on programs that deliver substantial resources to our schools. We are very excited to grow the new STEM program. We are also very excited about the work we are doing outside New York to help Jewish communities all across the U.S.
Q: What does it mean for a school to join your network? What does that entail?
A: Our network schools are the bedrock of our advocacy. Member schools invest in our work and take an active role in shaping policy. Member schools meet with legislators, join us for missions to Albany, and play a key role in making the case for the importance of these programs. At the same time, our staff is interacting with the schools to help them utilize these programs in the best possible manner. We have full-time staff dedicated to helping schools navigate the process of applying for grants, accessing state funds, and making sure schools are accessing all the funds available to them.
Q: What is the single most important thing a school or parent can do to help affect education policy in their state or city?
First off, I’d say that every school needs to ensure that their community is a community that votes – in every single election, from the presidential level to county commissioner. Elections matter, and every day school and yeshiva parent needs to do their part by showing up. Of course, there are other ways to get involved and make a difference. On our website, www.teachadvocacy.org, parents can sign up for emails so they get notices about action alerts when there is pending legislation; they can volunteer to be an ambassador for the cause; they can join Teach NYS on missions to Albany. The more they do to get involved, the more loudly our collective voice can be heard.