Funding, Rep. Turzai take center stage at Hillel Academy

The speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives visited the school to talk about the EITC program, which promotes donations to Jewish day schools an

Students at Hillel Academy welcome State Rep. Mike Turzai with signs. (Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt)

Students at Hillel Academy welcome State Rep. Mike Turzai with signs. (Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt)

In one morning, the speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives recited the Pledge of Allegiance with a third-grade class, learned to say “thank you” in Hebrew (todah rabbah) and aimed to inspire children that they could be among the next voices representing the people of the commonwealth.

State Rep. Mike Turzai (R-District 28) was visiting students from Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, who, with prompting from teachers and religious leaders, wanted to thank the state representative for his support of laws that have provided additional funding to their school, other Pittsburgh Jewish day schools and private and parochial schools throughout the state. The event, which was held on Wednesday, Dec. 20, was organized by Hillel Academy and Teach PA, a project of the Orthodox Union that advocates for the safety and sustainability of Jewish day schools.

Turzai has been a big proponent of maintaining and increasing funding for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, a state program that allows businesses to receive tax credits for donations made to scholarship opportunity organizations or innovations for public education.

“Ten years ago, Hillel Academy had 180 students and was struggling to survive. Not only have we increased the number of students, but we’re providing an opportunity for students to come,” Rabbi Sam Weinberg told the group of about 25 parents, faculty and community members who came to speak with Turzai on Dec. 20. “Without this program, there’s no way that could have happened.”

The Pennsylvania state legislature passed the EITC program in 2001, and an additional program, called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, which functions in a similar way to EITC by giving businesses tax credit for donations, in 2012.

Since then, state funding for the program has fluctuated. In recent years, it has increased, with an additional $25 million allocated to the EITC in the 2016-17 Pennsylvania state budget and another $10 million in the 2017-18 budget, for a total of $185 million.

Yet, Turzai said, the program is a point of discussion every year.

“We’re at $185 million, which seems significant but in the scope of things is a very small percentage,” Turzai said. “There are folks who would be more than happy to curtail the program. It’s important for you to be involved with respect to our state budget because every year the discussion will come up.”

State Rep. Mike Turzai talks to students at Hillel Academy about Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania state legislature and the EITC program. (Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt)

For the three Pittsburgh Jewish day schools — Hillel Academy, Yeshiva Schools and Community Day School — this funding helps provide scholarships for students who would not be able to attend the school otherwise.The schools saw a decrease in their available funds, from $4.9 million in the 2014-15 school year to $3.5 million in the 2015-16 school year. There was a slight increase to $3.9 million for the 2016-17 school year.

The amount of available funds from the 2017-18 year will not be available until around May 2018, according to Adam Hertzman, director of marketing communications at the Jewish Federation.

After businesses apply for the tax credit, it takes the Pennsylvania legislature some time to accept their application. The Federation works with businesses to explain the program and secure donations.

Thirty-eight businesses donated to the programs last year.

The $10 million increase for the EITC program, Hertzman said, will likely benefit the Jewish day schools but the specifics of where that money goes is always dependent on the businesses that apply and how much tax credit they have available.

For participating businesses, the donations apply not only toward state taxes but also toward federal tax benefits, the amount of which could decrease with the new federal tax plan that President Donald Trump signed into law on Dec. 23.

Even so, Hertzman said he doesn’t expect the amount of donations to decrease because the federal tax benefit is “icing on the cake” compared to the state benefit.

“My sense from talking to businesses is that there are very few people who are doing this as a business decision solely,” Hertzman said. “They’re doing it because they are people who care about education and people who care about the Jewish community.”

Students at Hillel Academy brought signs to welcome Rep. Mike Turzai to their school the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 20. (Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt)

In addition to the funding increase, Turzai championed legislation from last year’s budget that prohibited the state from withholding funds for the EITC and OSTC programs if there were a budget impasse.That legislation “proved effective this year,” said Hank Butler, executive director at the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which advocates for Jewish Federations in Pennsylvania.

“Elected officials in Pennsylvania have clearly realized the value of this program,” Butler said. “Every time they increase the money, it’s used immediately.”

For Abby Schachter, who has three children at Hillel Academy and is a beneficiary of the OSTC program, the scholarship money has provided her children with the Jewish education they need to be “24/7 365 Jews.”

Without the program, she said, her taxes would be supporting education for other people’s children rather than her own. “I’m most grateful our taxes go to pay for public education and that our children get to get that money transferred to their school,” she said.

Turzai agreed that state lawmakers advocating for the EITC and OSTC programs must “keep pace” with the constant increase in state funding for public education.

“The whole objective [of the program] is that one size does not fit all,” he said. “If the state is going to be supportive of education, then this should be part of our mission.”

Turzai is running for Pennsylvania governor in the 2018 election. PJC

This story has been updated to include that Teach PA organized the event with Hillel Academy.

Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at
lrosenblatt@pittsburghjewishchronicle.com.

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