Agudah Launches ‘Emergency’ Effort for Tuition Aid Bill

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel speaks Tuesday at an “emergency meeting” at the Agudah office to announce the start of a lobbying effort for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tuition aid bill. (Courtesy of Efraim Lebowitz)
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel speaks Tuesday at an “emergency meeting” at the Agudah office to announce the start of a lobbying effort for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tuition aid bill. (Courtesy of Efraim Lebowitz)

Kicking off a frenetic three-week campaign to get a potentially historic tuition aid bill passed, Agudath Israel of America on Tuesday urged four dozen activists and yeshivah representatives to get the power of their 100,000-strong parent body behind it.

At what Agudah officials described as an “emergency meeting” at their Manhattan headquarters, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the group’s executive vice president, told the assembled that the “exciting” new bill, the Parental Choice in Education Act, would represent a “tremendous breakthrough for our yeshivah community.”

The legislation, proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has two components: It would provide a $500 per child tax credit to parents who pay tuition for their children in nonpublic schools, as long as the parents earn below $60,000. And it would set aside $50 million for a 75 percent tax deduction for contributions to scholarship funds for low income nonpublic school students.

“Stated simply,” Rabbi Zwiebel said in a letter issued to invitees, “the governor’s proposal would be a real game-changer.”

Criticized by some for his lukewarm support for the bill during budget negotiations earlier this year, Cuomo has now undertaken an aggressive push for it. He appeared last week at a Flatbush yeshivah school choice rally, and spoke at several churches.

However, the proposal faces strong opposition, especially in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

“It is critical,” Rabbi Zwiebel said, “that we mount a major campaign to show our support for the bill and to help ensure its passage.”

A common thread at the meeting, which featured about a dozen speakers, was that this was a unique opportunity to get what has eluded askanim for decades — the first real financial aid for tuition-paying parents.

“Indeed, it may be now or never,” said Chaskel Bennett, an Agudah trustee. “With the upheaval in Albany, the political landscape may never again be more favorable for legislation that significantly impacts our yeshivos and parents struggling with the burden of tuition, than now.”

Rabbi Zwiebel implored the yeshivah administrators to make direct contact with their parent body and ask them to inform their elected officials that this bill is a priority to them. They should also ask their lawmakers to lobby their colleagues to support it as well.

“It’s not just up to our legislative representatives in Albany and volunteer askanim to carry the ball here,” Bennett said. “It is the achrayus and obligation of every single person who cares about and values yeshivah education to make their voices heard. Now!”

In related news, the Orthodox Union and the UJA-Federation of New York announced last week Tuesday the beginning of a 30-day campaign to push legislators on the bill. They said that representatives of the two groups will be in Albany every day to lobby for it.

“It is crucial that every parent take it upon him/herself to get involved in this campaign and encourage their friends and colleagues to get involved as well,” said Maury Litwack, director of state political affairs for the OU.

At the Agudah meeting, Assemblyman Dov Hikind suggested that the three groups investing in the effort to push for the bill — Agudah, the Orthodox Union and the Catholic Conference — should undertake a division of labor: They should each lobby certain Assembly members.

The Senate already passed its own version, which has the scholarship tax deduction but not the direct tax credit for parents. Any bill that passes must be reconciled with the Senate bill.

The bill must pass before the legislature ends its session on June 17.