First published in NJ.com on February 26, 2020.
The K-8 Toldos Yaakov Yosef yeshiva in Lakewood does have its own science and math teachers, officials of the K-8 school say.
But, added Principal Baruch Hochman, “They’re not certified.”
And therefore, Hochman said, STEM-related classes for Toldos Yaakov Yosef’s 220 Orthodox Jewish students are not as advanced as the school would like.
So, Hochman and a colleague from the school, known as TYY, were among dozens of representatives of Lakewood yeshivas who had attended an informational meeting at Lakewood High School about a new state grant program that will pay eligible public school teachers to teach STEM classes in private schools.
More than 100 men in black coats and yarmulkes and women dressed in skirts, woolen stockings and flats gathered in the LHS auditorium. Some were among the 21 Lakewood public school faculty members who had volunteered for the program, including Orthodox and non-Jewish teachers. None of them said they were volunteering for the program for the extra pay, which will be an hourly wage based on their regular pay.
“I love math,” said Maryan Mikhail, a Lakewood algebra teacher who is a Coptic Christian originally from Egypt. “I like to give it to the students.”
Hochman said the religious or other backgrounds of the STEM teacher would make no difference to him or the yeshiva’s Orthodox families.
“As long as they’re ethical and they respect the religion,” Hochman said.
The grant program sets aside a total of $5 million for the program’s first year, 2020-21, to pay public school teachers who inform their district they would like to be placed on a list of participants compiled by each county superintendent of schools and made available to private schools looking for STEM teachers, whose email addresses are included on the list.
The private schools, which can look for teachers beyond the district or county in which they’re located, then reach out directly to teachers they’re interested in. If the teacher wants the work, he or she then works with their district and the private school to arrive at a teaching schedule that does not interfere with the teacher’s normal public school classes.
To be eligible, teachers must either be STEM certified, enrolled in a STEM certification program, or pledge in writing to enroll in a program within 2 years. Education department and public school officials say the eligibility requirement will benefit public school students as well as private, by encouraging more teachers to earn their certification.
The signed agreement, plus a teaching plan and proof of eligibility, are then submitted to the education department as part of the grant application for review and approval. The state’s deadline for application is April 15, with grants to be awarded later in the spring.
In addition to being the deadline for filing state and federal tax returns, Lakewood Public Schools lawyer and spokesman Michael Inzelbuch noted that April 15 is also a Jewish holiday this year, the last day of Passover, and he urged yeshivas to contact teachers and work out scheduling agreements well before the deadline. Inzelbuch said an early submission did not guarantee a grant, but it couldn’t hurt.
“I assume the sooner you apply the better,” Inzelbuch said. “When Costco is having a sale, you want to get there first.”
Although the grant program was authorized under a 2018 amendment to existing private school funding legislation, it has received little attention up to now, particularly in areas where the private school population is not unusually large. The education department said last week that a total of 119 teachers from throughout the state had volunteered for the program a full month after registration for it began, meaning most districts had not registered a single teacher.
But nonpublic education is a dominant issue in Lakewood, thanks to the large and growing Orthodox community, which sends its school age children almost exclusively to private yeshivas.
Yeshvia students outnumber their public school counterparts by a nearly 6-1 ratio n Lakewood, with 36,000 Orthodox students attending 127 local yeshivas, compared to about 6,300 mainly Hispanic, black and non-Jewish white students in the public schools, according to Inzelbuch, who hosted Tuesday’s STEM meeting.
Like the Orthodox community’s overall population, the number of Orthodox students in Lakewood is also rapidly growing, at a rate of about 2,500 per year, Inzelbuch said. That pace of growth alone has fueled demand for STEM teachers in local yeshivas, according to Rabbi Aaron Kotler, a leader of Lakewood’s Orthodox community, who was involved in the creation of the STEM grant program.
Critics of the program have labeled it one more example of public spending on private education. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, which advocates for state aid sufficient to provide a thorough and efficient education for students in poor districts, said state spending on private schools is totals $118 million for the current school year.
But in the case of the STEM grant program, Inzelbuch insisted the $5 million set aside for the coming school year is not taking away from public school students.
“None of this money is coming from our public school money,” said Inzelbuch, “or our public school students.”
The state’s biggest teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association, which has questioned public spending outside traditional public schools but whose members could benefit financially from the STEM grants, does not have a position on the program, said a spokesman for the union, Steven Baker.
Lakewood Public Schools attorney Michael Inzelbuch during an informational meeting Tuesday morning on the new STEM grant program. To his immediate right is the district superintendent, Laura Winters, with the school board president, Moshe Bender, on the far left.Steve Strunsky |NJ Advance Media For NJ.com