By Larry Gordon

In 2013, the Orthodox Union saw the future and asked the question: are private-school and yeshiva students being treated with parity by education departments in New York and around the country?

The issue might have emerged here in the Five Towns almost two decades ago when candidates Murray Forman and Dr. Asher Mansdorf ran for the school board in the Lawrence School District and asked the question: Are yeshiva students who reside in the district being treated like any other district child and if not, why not?

The dynamic of the interface between private schools — yeshivas, in our case—and that of government would now change in a near revolutionary fashion. Along with the positive changes came some challenges that are currently being dealt with.

In 2013, Teach NYS was founded as a division of the OU, and since then remarkable things have been accomplished in the value of government’s role in private-school education, mostly in a way that enhanced the education process and to an extent reduced the tuition burden for yeshiva parents in some sectors.

Earlier this week we sat down with Maury Litwack, executive director of the Teach Coalition, to understand their accomplishments, discuss priorities going forward, and explore his vision of the future for Orthodox Jewish families.

From the get-go, it is important to note that Teach NYS has been directly involved in paving the way for millions of dollars to be allocated in state budgets for yeshivas and other private schools. It may have not yet been felt down the line but it has already impacted on some yeshivas’ tuition cost.

Our conversation revolved around the order of priorities on the Teach NYS agenda. One thing we agreed upon was that we are an education-focused community that assigns a high priority to our children receiving the most outstanding education available in a safe, secure, and productive environment.

The mention of security in our conversation led the discussion in exactly that direction — security in our schools and schools in general, both private and public, around the country. There is no doubt that job number one is to make certain that our children are safe in their schools. It does not require descriptive details, but we are living in difficult and challenging times, and as a result it is incumbent upon us to do our best to secure our schools and see to it that all are safe during the school day.

To that end, Teach NYS here in New York has worked closely with Governor Cuomo’s office and leading legislators in Albany such as State Senator Todd Kaminsky and Assemblywoman Melissa Miller to secure added and important funding for security in our yeshivas so that the cost of securing a facility does not impact on a school’s education budget.

How security money is spent is, to an extent, at the discretion of the individual schools. Some add security guards or additional security personnel. One yeshiva in Brooklyn used part of the funding to purchase and install bulletproof doors for the school.

Teach NYS is probably the one group that most impacts on Orthodox Jewish families here in the New York area because of its focus on core pocketbook issues that impact the overall community. Let’s put it this way. There isn’t a family or a home with children that does not feel the result of the work of Teach NYS.

The organization will be hosting its annual New York event on September 24 at Metropolitan West in Manhattan. Of course, participation helps to raise the funds for the important work Teach NYS does, but showing up and providing encouragement for their efforts is probably just as important.

Aside from security funding, another successful avenue that Teach NYS has been pushing is state aid for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education in our schools. State government’s interest is STEM education is motivated by the fact that those areas are where the jobs are for graduates.

STEM funding has a direct effect on the quality of the education our children receive. Better funding for STEM means that more highly regarded teachers can be hired to prepare students accordingly and efficiently.

One of our side conversations with Maury Litwack the other day was what the proper order is of priority or urgency. Teach NYS works essentially on four major categories that best fortify our schools: security, STEM, the tuition crisis, and getting at the vote.

In one sense, these days anyway, there is nothing more vital than security in our schools. But then I suggested to Maury that of the four major priorities of Teach NYS nothing may be more urgent or vital than getting folks to go out and vote for candidates who will support our causes.

Of course, government in general is positively predisposed to education, as it is the foundation of future generations. But still, at the end of the day, budgets need to be dealt with and reconciled, and every state government almost routinely expends tens of millions of dollars for schools, which is rightly up there on the agenda.

On the matter of voting, this may be the issue that is the sum total of all the others. As far as the tuition crisis in our communities, that can only be ameliorated by additional government funds earmarked for our education systems. STEM and even security are arguably a subdivision and an outgrowth of what we can produce as a community when we organize and get out the vote.

So far, over the last couple of years Teach NYS has secured $60 million for security in our schools and $30 million for STEM education. And there is a great deal more to be done.

Of course, the underside, if we can call it that, is the issue of government’s insistence on getting involved in the education curriculum of our schools. It’s a serious issue about which Teach NYS has serious concerns. They are formulating the approach that they think the OU should take to most effectively convey these concerns to Albany and decision-makers.

Schools are about to open in the next week or so, and thankfully we are all better off because of folks like Maury Litwack, Cal Nathan, and the professional staff at Teach NYS and the OU. And in the Five Towns, we owe thanks to Lance Hirt, Llyod Kielson and Howie Baltar for their efforts.


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