As Albany Divvies Up the Pie, Agudah Seeks Larger Slice for Private Schools
Agudath Israel leaders and yeshiva administrators at the state Capitol in Albany, Wednesday. (Moshe Gershbaum/Agudath Israel)
By Reuvain Borchardt
ALBANY – As New York state government enters the final days of negotiations on its 2023 budget, Agudath Israel and Yeshiva administrators visited the state capitol on Wednesday to lobby lawmakers on its agenda, which this year focuses on about funding for private schools.
A top Agudah priority is increasing funding for the Non-Public School Safety and Equipment Grant (NPSE), which private schools can use for safety equipment. The governor’s proposed budget maintains last year’s funding level of $45 million, although the Assembly budget would increase it to $60 million.
Under state law, the governor issues her proposed budget, known as the “executive budget,” in January, followed by the Assembly and Senate each issuing their own proposed “house budgets,” followed by negotiations and approval of a final budget.
Agudath Israel Executive Vice President Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel made a plea for increased funding in a meeting with Brooklyn Assemblyman William Colton’s staff.
“There has not only been an increase, but an explosion in incidents of hate crimes directed against Jewish people and Jewish institutions, buildings, synagogues, Jewish schools,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “We say to the legislature: “Help us at least secure our institutions”.
State Sen. James Sanders addressed the Agudah delegation at a luncheon Wednesday, speaking out against the proliferation of anti-Semitic attacks.
“We must stop these attacks,” Sanders said. “You can change with people. You can change with the position of Palestine. You can change with all kinds of things. But … there will be no pushing anyone into the sea.
Noting that an anti-Semitic group recently declared a “Day of Hate” against Jews, Sanders said, “Anybody who starts talking about any of this crazy stuff, I’m going to try to work with them for a moment. I’m going to I say, ‘You know this is crazy you’re talking about.’ And if they continue this, I cannot guarantee their safety.”
(A day after Agudah’s lobbying mission, the Anti-Defamation League announced Thursday that anti-Semitic attacks rose 41% in New York state from 2021 to 2022, as well as increases in anti-Semitic harassment and swastika graffiti. Orthodox Jews were the victims of 64% attacks, mostly in Brooklyn and Rockland County.)
Agudah also lobbied lawmakers Wednesday to provide fuller reimbursement for services the state requires private schools to perform.
This year’s executive budget allocated $193 million — the same as last year — to fund mandated services at private schools, such as attendance and test delivery, and says the amount “will represent the fulfillment of the state’s obligation to assist which is paid to the school. year.” However, the state Department of Education has projected this year’s costs for these services to be more than $210 million.Both house budgets removed language indicating that the state would not be responsible for costs above $193 million.
Additionally, while private schools in New York City, Buffalo and Rochester are required to ensure childhood immunizations are up to date, according to Agudah data, the state is actually reimbursing schools for pennies on the dollar for these cost. A House Senate budget increased the reimbursement from $1 million to $1.9 million — still well below the cost of service, according to Agudah records.
Agudah is asking that these items be included in the final budget passed by both chambers and signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Finally, the Agudah, along with about 300 other entities representing public school districts, Catholic schools, yeshivas and anti-hunger organizations, is advocating that the state cover the cost of providing free school meals to all students.
The federal government has long provided free or reduced-cost meals based on a student’s family income; Free meals are available to New York students living in households with incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or just over $51,000 for a family of four. (If at least 62.5% of the students in a given school system are verified as low-income—as is the case in some private schools as well as New York City Public Schools—students throughout that system receive free meals, according to ” Community” federal Eligibility Provision.”)
During the COVID-19 pandemic, with businesses suffering and unemployment high, the federal government began offering free meals to all students regardless of income — initially, when schools were closed, in the form of grab-and-go packages. , and later, for regular school meals. But that program ended last June, leaving 726,000 students without access to free meals.
A bill proposed in the last legislative session would have given all students free lunches, with the state making up the funding gap, estimated at about $200 million a year.
A House Senate budget includes this bill. The budget for one chamber of the Assembly includes this in the text of the budget itself, although the budget summary states that it is only for public schools. The executive budget does not include this provision at all.
“Not only do we need every child to get a meal during the day,” Sen. Shelley Mayer told the Agudah delegation, but “as Jews we know the shared experience of eating together … It makes a difference in spirit of our classrooms, of our children and the way our schools function.”
While his current legislative priorities this year center around school funding, much of the Agudah mission on Wednesday focused on pushing back against unjustified attacks on the Orthodox community, particularly yeshivas, by The New York Times.
As the state Board of Regents last year reviewed and approved regulations on secular studies curriculum in private schools, the Times published a series of articles alleging that Chassidish yeshivas provide an inadequate secular education and alleging inappropriate use of government funding. .
Agudah has launched a website called KnowUs.org, seeking to combat the portrayal of the community in Times articles.
The Times “did a good job,” Monsey Sen. Bill Weber said at the Agudah luncheon. “They wanted to give cover to the Board of Regents” to pass the regulations.
“People need to understand that yeshivas are an essential part of who we are,” Rabbi Zwiebel said in the meeting with Assemblyman Colton’s staff. The academic rigor of a yeshiva education is exceptional. People who study the Talmud are gaining a very strong ability to read accurately, to speak accurately, to reason, to be able to engage in debate, and all the things that education is really about.”
“When you have a dual curriculum, of course you will have fewer hours devoted to secular studies than in public schools,” Rabbi Zwiebel said, adding that a requirement for yeshivas to offer similar hours of secular studies to that in schools Public schools would “rob us of our ability to structure the school day in a way where significant amounts of time can be devoted to the religious education that is so important to us.”
Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Agudath Israel’s director of New York government relations, told Hamodia after Wednesday’s mission: “While, unfortunately, we cannot expect much better from the Times, we were at least in able to impress upon our state legislators that the Agudah community represents bears. it bears no resemblance to that described in the Times and is a shining example to the rest of the state of achievement, scholastic achievement, professional success, unity, peace.”
Agudah is one of several yeshiva organizations currently challenging the regulations in court.
The passage of the final budget is expected in early April.
Assemblyman Lester Chang speaking to a contingent of the Agudha delegation. (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia) State Sen. Bill Weber addresses the Agudah luncheon at the Capitol in front of a poster for KnowUs.org, the Agudah-run website that seeks to combat The New York Times’ portrayal of the community. (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia) Assembly members Chris Eachus and Jeff Dinowitz. (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia) (Moshe Gershbaum/Agudath Israel)