By Maury Litwack, Executive Director Teach NYS
Imagine your 11-year-old son’s excitement when he comes home having just learned to code and successfully made a robotic arm move.
How about your daughter sharing how she, together with her 10th grade friends, are on the verge of a breakthrough with a 3-D device to help wheelchair bound seniors perform household tasks? She is part of the biggest increase of young women gravitating to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) since the US Census Bureau began tracking STEM women workers in 1970.
Now, imagine taking one more minute to take pleasure knowing that your children and grandchildren are preparing for 21st century jobs that will pay well, create more opportunities, and in fact, are so innovative that they don’t even exist yet.
Then, sit back and relax, because this dream of an innovative and impactful STEM education is taking place with record speed in hundreds of New York Jewish day schools and yeshivas thanks to a 2017 historic bill passed in Albany. Like many great things, this didn’t “just happen.” The effort started many years before when day schools and yeshivas sat down together in a spirit of achdus to see if they could make a shared dream into a reality for all.
Whether they were in Buffalo or Brooklyn or anywhere in between, heads of schools and lay leaders had dreamed of having the state make a greater investment in our kids. They came together under the banner of Teach NYS, a project of the Orthodox Union, to invest in a new model of educational advocacy. They decided to invest in the best lobbyists in Albany, to dedicate the time necessary to meet with elected officials in Albany and organize thousands of people to join them, and to not stop until the bill was passed, however many years that might take.
The hard work paid off when, for the first time in history, New York State began to pay nonpublic schools, including yeshivas and day schools, for the cost of their STEM teachers. The sense of euphoria in nonpublic schools was powerful; educators and activists were excited about the STEM funding and even more about the precedent this set for the state investing in all students, regardless of what kind of school they attend.
There was a caveat as there often is in the implementation of innovative programs. The initial funding allocation to pay for all the nonpublic school teachers was only $5 million dollars. What would that pay for? One to two percent of a school’s science or math teacher?
School leaders and activists took a short victory lap and then doubled down on their efforts, adding dozens more schools to the coalition, hundreds of more activists, and thousands of new voices to their advocacy in Albany. Every year, they fought to grow the STEM program, and it grew to $15 million then $30 million and then $40 million. Over the past 5 years, New York allocated an astounding $120 million to the program.
This year, New York took an even bigger step by allocating $58 million for the STEM 2023 annual budget – a 400 % increase from its humble beginnings. It is an incredible testament to our schools and to the thousands of people who have spoken up to make their support heard. Voters have made this a central issue by constantly asking candidates, “Where do you stand on STEM funding?” Elected officials are eager to visit our schools to see the impact of this funding at work, and this March, over 1,000 students participated in our virtual mission to Albany.
It is crucial to appreciate how far we’ve come in such a short period of time. Millions of dollars are being invested annually in our children and their future. Just this year alone, 115 yeshivas and day schools are participating in the STEM teacher program. That’s what happens when we raise our voices as a community and we work together to advocate with our elected officials.
STEM funding is an incredible testament to what we can do but it’s just the beginning. In New York, yeshiva and day school students make up 42% of the 382,000 nonpublic school students in the state, who themselves are 13% of all K-12 New York students. Yet, all those students receive less than of 3% of the NYS K-12 education budget.
Giving a child a Jewish education is an invaluable investment for life but it doesn’t come easy to most families. It requires hard work, financial planning and very often sacrifice to give our children the education we know they deserve.
We invite you to join us and take our fight to the next level. Work together with us to secure equitable funding of every child’s education. Just like we did with STEM funding, we can maximize our investment in our children. The first step is to vote in the upcoming New York primary for Governor, and State Senate and Assembly to make sure that the candidates see the power and numbers of the nonpublic-school community. Elected officials really do take note of the people who vote and we need to make sure our needs are heard. Help make an impact that delivers an even greater future for our children and you will no longer need to imagine a stronger, quality education for our children. It will be the reality.