Ask Andrea Lieber about her school community and she’ll say much the same as those who run similar schools across the commonwealth: "They’re such good people, but they struggle to make ends meet. These aren’t rich folks. Some are poor. Some are middle-class families."
Lieber is president of the Silver Academy, central Pennsylvania’s only Jewish day school located on Front Street in Harrisburg. Her middle schoolers all graduate, attend an accredited or licensed high school and to her knowledge all graduate four years later and head to college. In some ways Harrisburg is unique and in some ways it is emblematic of issues families and educators are facing statewide. That is why Senate Bill 1, the Opportunity Scholarship & Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act, is so crucial to communities statewide, including Harrisburg.
For the families attending the Silver Academy, it’s a struggle to keep up with the mortgage, car payments and the myriad other bills. Add tuition and it gets even tougher. That’s why, according to Lieber, 98 percent of her families are on
scholarship. In the recent downturn, the school has seen scholarship requests and their scholarship budget soar — by 20 percent in the last two years. Standard charitable giving would likely never be able to cover that deficit. But that’s why the EITC program has been a godsend.
Through the EITC program, the local Jewish federation has raised much-needed funds for scholarships since the program’s inception in 2001. By law, there’s an income cutoff for those scholarships, ensuring they are used only by middle- and moderate-income families. Even so, one quarter of the Silver Academy students utilize EITC scholarships. EITC took a $15 million hit two years ago and last year was maintained at that level. That makes it harder for a school such as Silver Academy to help every family that needs it.
A bill such as SB 1, which does two things, is crucial. First, it builds on success.
The EITC program, one of the first in the nation, has been copied, imitated and
mimicked across the continent. Why? Because it works. Under EITC, millions of
dollars have been raised for public (yes, it helps public schools, too) and private education without diverting money from the state’s education coffers.
That’s also why it has garnered support from Democrats and Republicans. In the most recent election, Gov. Corbett and his opponent, Dan Onorato, touted their support for it. So SB 1 builds on this success by increasing the funding of EITC to $100 million. That’s crucial. It’s taking what works and helping it to work better and for more families in need.
SB 1 also focuses on failing school districts and the primarily low-income families who live there. It would provide opportunity scholarships to low-income children in a failing district to attend a better school, including some here in Harrisburg.
How sad that today we still struggle to make sure children aren’t denied an
education. Because denying education really means denying opportunity. How sad that middle-class families also struggle to provide their children with better education and opportunity.
Lieber reminds me the Silver Academy was named for Rabbi David Silver, whose father was the founding rabbi of Kesher Israel, a local congregation. After World War II, the elder Rabbi Silver traveled to war-torn Europe and searched town by town for orphaned Jewish children. The school tries to emulate that care and concern for every — any — child.
It is that care for all, those within our community and outside it, that causes us at the Orthodox Union to support SB 1, which works to make education better for all.
We hope Pennsylvania’s policymakers will act in that same spirit and enact SB 1.
Howie Beigelman is deputy director of public policy for the Orthodox Union