Why Jewish Day Schools Are Breathing a Little Easier on Tax Bill

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A Bible class at the Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pa., one of the few Jewish day schools with a strong teachers union. (Courtesy Barrack Hebrew Day School)
Lawmakers finalizing the proposed tax overhaul reportedly have removed a provision that had sent shivers through the graduate student and Jewish day school communities.

The House version of the reform bill, which was drafted by the Republican leadership, had removed the qualified tuition credit. The credit exempts from taxes the free tuition that private schools, including Jewish day schools, often extend to the children of employees.

However, the Senate version maintained the credit.

On Wednesday afternoon, Bloomberg News reported that the proposal in the House of Representatives to remove the credit was dropped from the reconciled version of the House and Senate bills.

Master’s and doctoral students who supplement their education by working at their universities are compensated in part by tuition waivers, which have been tax exempt for decades. Removing the exemption, as House Republicans had proposed, would have had students looking at tax increases of four- to seven-fold, according to an estimate.

“Grad Students Are Freaking Out About the GOP Tax Plan” was the headline in Wired in an article that quoted a number of students who indeed seemed staggered by the prospect.

Unnerved, too, were Jewish day schools, according to two umbrella Orthodox groups that lobbied hard to keep the credit. The tax break has been key to attracting top staff to the day schools, according to the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America; staffers get free or reduced tuition for their own children. Taxing that tuition would make it hard to hire qualified teachers, the groups said.

“Many K-12 schools in our community (and others) are only able to attract quality teachers by providing discounts on tuition for their children,” said a letter sent Dec. 7 by the Orthodox Union’s Washington office to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the chairman of the House tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Of the 1,004 Jewish day schools in the United States listed by J Data, the database run by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, 731 are Orthodox. A publicist for the Conservative movement, to which the Solomon Schechter schools are affiliated, did not return a request for comment in time for publication.

Dave Sloan, the president of the Modern Orthodox Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland, said school staffers could have taken hits ranging from “thousands of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars,” depending on their number of children.

“It will be incumbent on our institution to true that up,” or compensate the teacher, Sloan said in an interview before the news broke that the credit would not be removed. “It’s not an extinction-level event, but it creates pressure on our budget to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Berman, with 700 students, has tuitions ranging from $16,000 to $23,000, depending on the grade.

Agudath Israel of America raised another flag about the proposal: Compensating the teachers for the tax hike through salary increases would place them in a higher tax bracket, which could also have deleterious effects.

“Its elimination can result in higher taxable incomes that would make them ineligible for health insurance and other social service benefits — a devastating loss,” said the draft of a letter Agudah was set to send to the conference committee, the gathering of lawmakers and staffers that reconcile the House and Senate versions.

The committee reportedly was close to a reconciled bill on Wednesday afternoon.

President Donald Trump has said he wants to sign the bill before the year is out.

It’s not clear whether a separate proposal in the Senate version favored by the Orthodox movements had survived the reconciliation. That proposal, introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, would have made a portion of 529s, the tax-free savings accounts for college tuition, available for religious day school tuitions.

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