Jewish advocacy groups scored several legislative wins in the 2018 Maryland legislative session, including funding for day school security, more scholarships for day school families, and infrastructure improvements for various Jewish institutions. Funding also held steady for several existing programs important to the Jewish community. According to experienced local advocates, a key enabler for securing wins like these is for Jews to register and vote on election days — and the upcoming primary elections June and general elections in November are no exception.
As in past years, Maryland private schools will receive between $65 and $155 per student (depending on the student body’s percentage of low-income students) for textbooks and technology, and schools can apply for $3.5 million in building renovation grants through the Nonpublic Aging Schools Program. The Maryland Israel Development Center, which builds business partnerships between Maryland and Israel, received $275,000, also as it has in the past several years. Likewise for the Holocaust Survivor Aging-in-Place program, which received $350,000 from the state.
New funding being touted by Jewish advocacy groups such as Agudath Israel of Maryland, the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC) and Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington include a boost to BOOST, the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today program. BOOST provides scholarships to low-income families (those making less than $45,510 for a family of four) to attend private school. This year, Governor Larry Hogan proposed increasing funding from $5 million to $9 million. Ultimately, the legislature approved an increase to $7 million (plus $600,000 that was left over from last year’s BOOST funding).
Jewish schools will be eligible to receive new security funding from the state this year. One million dollars was allocated for security improvements and personnel at schools and child care centers deemed at risk for hate crimes. “The JCRC was instrumental in passing legislation during the 2017 legislative session and getting funding approved in the 2018 legislative session,” said Meredith Weisel, director of Maryland Government and Community Relations for the JCRC. “Jewish day schools and child care centers, along with other private schools at risk of hate crimes, will now be able to access grants funds for both operating and capital security needs.”
Legislators also allocated an additional $3.5 million to upgrade building security in private schools and $10 million to upgrade security in public schools. According to Sarah Mersky, director of Government Relations for the Baltimore Jewish Council, this funding was prompted by the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida and the Great Mills High School shooting in Maryland. Mersky said legislators realized that all schools need better security — not just those at risk of hate crimes.
The 2018-2019 budget also sets aside funding for specific Jewish institutions. The University of Maryland Hillel in College Park will receive $1 million. Near Baltimore, $1.4 million will be spent on widening the road at Route 30 and Mt. Gilead Road — which should relieve traffic for those traveling to the Pearlstone Jewish retreat center. Hagerstown will receive $300,000 to dedicate the Thomas Kennedy Memorial Park across from Congregation B’nai Abraham. The park will feature a statue of Thomas Kennedy, who helped pass the 19th century “Jew Bill” which extended political rights to Jews in Maryland.
Not every legislative win involved new funding. The Baltimore Jewish Council supported several social justice initiatives, such as the Maryland Healthy Working Families Act, which provides most Maryland workers with paid sick leave. The JCRC supported a law that expands the definition and penalties for hate crimes. Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, director of Agudath Israel of Maryland, pointed to the defeat of Maryland House Bill 644; had it passed, it would have removed state tax benefits for families paying K-12 tuition from their 529 savings plans.
“The defeat of the bill cleared the way for what may end up as millions of dollars to the Jewish day school community this year,” Sadwin said. Agudath Israel estimated that this tax benefit — made possible by the 2017 federal tax reform law — can save day school families an average of $400 per child per year on tuition.
Legislative victories such as these don’t come easy, but they are easier when Jews turn out to vote in large numbers. “This election presents a real opportunity for voters in general to define the issues in their own backyard,” said Weisel. “When the Jewish community comes out and votes, it shows ... that we are a force to be reckoned with.”
DATES TO REMEMBER
Virginia primary: June 12
DC primary: June 19
Maryland primary: June 26
General election: Nov. 6
By Gabe Aaronson