Amid Pre-K Battle, Pressure Builds to Include Yeshivos

NEW YORK -

With a New York state budget deadline two weeks off, advocates for private and religious schools are turning up the pressure to ensure that the promised free full-day prekindergarten and afterschool programs are for all children, regardless of which school they attend.

Agudath Israel stepped up a call-a-thon scheme to make elected officials on the state level aware that yeshivah parents support a tax credit for an education donation. And hundreds of people and about a dozen elected officials attended a rally Wednesday afternoon organized by the Orthodox Union on the steps of City Hall.

State Sen. Simcha Felder, Assemblyman Dov Hikind and Councilman David Greenfield, Democrats who represent Boro
Park and Flatbush, wrote to Mayor Bill de Blasio this week, urging him to keep his word that priorities 5,6, and 7, afterschool vouchers that primarily benefit yeshivah parents, are fully funded under any budget outcome.

The vouchers were cut under ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but de Blasio, who as a city councilman and public advocate fought to keep them, has promised to restore them.

“I take Mayor de Blasio at his word,” Hikind said in a statement. “He has said time and again that he will restore these vital vouchers to our community. … When it comes to our children’s education, Mayor de Blasio will not disappoint us. There is no doubt that he will see his pledge through to fruition.”

“During the time we served together in the City Council,” Felder wrote to the mayor, “we regularly fought side-by-side to convince the previous mayoral administration not to discontinue funding for the Priority 5, 6 and 7 voucher programs.”

Priorities 5 and 6 vouchers allow two-income families to work or get technical training while their children were enrolled in an after-school program. Priority 7 vouchers target lower-income families with social service needs, where one parent working full-time was adversely affected.

“Besides generating additional revenue for the city and state,” said Felder, who head the Senate subcommittee on New York City education, “I see this as an investment in the educational future of New York state’s children.”

“We know that children who go to pre-K are more likely to be successful — in school and in life,” Greenfield said. “It doesn’t matter if a child goes to public school or non-public school — everyone must have access to UPK. Today we are raising the flag and calling for this legislation to include public and non-public schools alike.”

Jeff Leb, New York director of political affairs for the OU, told Hamodia that the goal of the City Hall rally Wednesday was twofold: enforcement of prekindergarten eligibility should be uniform and to make them amenable to yeshivos.

“The enforcement is not consistent, it’s very arbitrary,” Leb said. “We have to make sure that the rules are the same.”

One example of how current regulations adversely affect yeshivos is the requirement for 176 days of teaching, but classes must be closed on Sundays and legal holidays. With about 30 days off just from Yamim Tovim, that makes it very hard for yeshivos to become eligible.

Officially, the de Blasio administration said that every school, irrespective of whether it is public, private, religious or charter, could apply for the universal pre-K program. The deadline to apply passed last month but the city will reopen it for more applications — based on funding.

The funding is the main uncertainty now. De Blasio wants to fund the pre-K and afterschool programs with a tax on those earning more than $500,000, something that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Senate Republican majority reject. They want to fund pre-K programs across the state using a budget surplus.

While the Assembly passed their initial budget resolution Wednesday night with de Blasio’s tax included, the Senate’s plan did not. They now have until April 1 to reach an agreement.

Leb said that he “supports both UPK initiatives and is not taking sides between the governor’s proposal and the mayor’s proposal. Our primary concern is to ensure that any legislation that passes include all private and faith-based schools as well as public schools.”