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Group Focuses on Education

An influential ultra-Orthodox organization is putting new muscle behind efforts to shape education policy at the state level.

Agudath Israel of America, a New-York based advocacy group for ultra-Orthodox Jews, has recently created a new position, national director of government affairs. The new job is intended to create better coordination among the group’s 28 national affiliates, as a number of states prepare to consider voucher programs that benefit Orthodox day schools.

“Agudath Israel must upgrade its level of political activism in communities across the United States,” wrote Rabbi Chaim David Zwiebel, the group’s executive vice president of government and public affairs, in a November 22 letter announcing the new post. We “will work on expanding our network of government contacts at the federal, state and local levels; and will work… to coordinate grassroots political activism.”

Yehiel Kalish, a 31-year-old, Chicago-based rabbi who was formerly the group’s Midwest regional director, has assumed the new role. He will be working together in concert with the group’s existing Washington liaison, Rabbi Abba Cohen.

In an interview with the Forward, Kalish characterized education as the group’s “number one” domestic priority. While the incoming Congress is expected to consider reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act in the coming term, Kalish said his work will focus on bolstering state initiatives, given that the federal funds make up less than 10% of state education budgets.

According to Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, some state governments have become increasingly willing to provide funding to private religious schools in recent years, but Democratic successes in November at both the state and federal level could change matters.

Late last month, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to advocates of religious school funding when it refused to hear an appeal of a Maine case that sought to force local education officials to provide tax support for private religious schools. Maine law allows parents in some rural areas that lack public high schools to send their children to private schools, but the state has excluded religious schools from the plan.

Agudath Israel is already at the forefront of religious school advocacy efforts, according to Stern, and has mastered the art of securing state monies for Orthodox schools.

“They have carved out this niche for themselves, and they understandably want to exploit it,” Stern said. “They have, much more than the [Orthodox Union], concentrated on the nitty-gritty of finding what funds are available for educational institutions and enhancing the ability of schools to tap into the funds. Whatever is available, they have gone about getting in a very brassy way.”

Despite the fact that Agudath Israel is an ultra-Orthodox organization, Stern said, Modern Orthodox day schools often enlist the group’s expertise and advice.

Kalish said that his group is currently focusing its efforts on 11 states — Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Florida, New York, New Jersey, California, Texas, Minnesota and Wisconsin — that it considers particularly fertile ground for the school choice agenda. In Ohio, for example, the group will press for special education vouchers and a tuition tax credit to be included in a state budget, which will be passed in 2007. In Missouri, where Governor Matt Blunt has recently stoked controversy by appointing a voucher supporter to the State Board of Education, Agudath Israel plans to lobby for the passage of a voucher bill in 2007, which Blunt has said is one of his priorities.

“We’re upgrading our advocacy efforts,” Kalish said. “This is a big year for education reform… and if we’re not more proactive, it could cost us more time and effort in the future.”

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