Orthodox Leader Warns of Jewish Exodus to Florida If School Choice Bill Passes

‘They will lose children and families in the states of New York and New Jersey if this bill passes.’

AP/Matt Rourke, file
Desks are spaced apart ahead of planned in-person learning at an elementary school on March 19, 2021, at Philadelphia. AP/Matt Rourke, file

A leader at a major Orthodox Jewish advocacy group is sounding the bell on the possibility of thousands of Jews fleeing New York and New Jersey for warmer climates if a school choice bill becomes law in Florida.

Maury Litwack is the managing director of the Orthodox Union and the founder of a group dedicated to lobbying for government funding for non-public schools, Teach Coalition. He says Florida’s HB1, which would create education savings accounts of $7,500 for non-public school students to spend on the schools of their choice, could draw thousands of Jewish families to the Sunshine State.

For most Orthodox Jews, sending one’s children to public school is not an option. They believe that it is incumbent upon them to enroll their children in day school or yeshiva in order to fulfill a religious obligation to educate one’s children in biblical studies and Jewish law.

Doing so can be tricky when the tuition at Modern Orthodox day schools in the greater New York area can be between $20,000 and $40,000 a year for high school. (For fervently Orthodox schools, with less robust secular offerings, the price tends to be less — between $10,000 and $20,000 in annual tuition.) That’s for day school, with no room or board included.

It adds up for Orthodox families who, according to a 2013 Pew survey, have an average of four children per household. Larger families can find themselves shelling out more than $100,000 in tuition annually for years on end.

This leads to what Mr. Litwack calls a “tuition crisis” in which families have fewer children and even leave community schools. Orthodox Jews also begin thinking about the tremendous financial obligations they’ll have at a young age, Mr. Litwack says.

“I spoke to a college student who is a sophomore in a New York school who told me that he and his friends are trying to pick the right career so they can pay tuition,” Mr. Litwack told the Sun. “That’s how they’re thinking about which profession they should pick in college.”

A recent study found that the top concern among Orthodox Jews is the rising cost of Jewish education, with 82 percent of respondents saying it is an issue that the community must address in the next decade. 

While several other states have passed education savings account programs like the one proposed in Florida, none of them — Arizona, West Virginia, Arkansas, Iowa, or Utah — has the Jewish infrastructure of Florida. 

“Florida — which has a very large Jewish population with lots of kosher food and lots of Jewish amenities — is potentially passing a bill which will provide a major incentive for parents to move to Florida,” Mr. Litwack said, adding that parents are already incentivized to do so “because there’s no state income tax.”

The Sunshine State has the fourth largest Jewish day school population, following New York, New Jersey, and California — and tuition at Florida Modern Orthodox day schools is already lower than comparable ones in New York.

If the bill passes, Mr. Litwack only expects Florida’s Jewish population to grow. He encourages policymakers in northeast states to view their states as businesses that are potentially about to lose thousands of clients.

“New York and New Jersey legislators have to pay attention to this because when parents leave, that is tax revenue that is leaving the state,” Mr. Litwack said. “When Jewish schools and Catholic schools close down, those are jobs that are closing down with them.”

The jobs are far beyond teaching, including construction, security, maintenance, transportation, and administrative posts. “Everything that goes into that incredible infrastructure that is a Jewish day school or Catholic school,” per Mr. Litwack.

“If you’re a legislator in New York or New Jersey, and you care about the future of the state, you’ve got to look at this and say to yourself, ‘We have to figure out a way to compete,’” Mr. Litwack said. “Because they will lose children and families in the states of New York and New Jersey if this bill passes.”

The New York Sun

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