With One Week Left, Jewish Groups Rally for Tuition Aid

L-R: Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel of the Agudah, Allen Fagin of the OU, and Eric Goldstein of UJA on Monday attend a rally in Manhattan in support of private school tuition aid. (Courtesy of the Orthodox Union)
L-R: Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel of the Agudah, Allen Fagin of the OU, and Eric Goldstein of UJA on Monday attend a rally in Manhattan in support of private school tuition aid. (Courtesy of the Orthodox Union)

One week before the end of Albany’s session marking a deadline to pass a potentially historic tuition aid bill, three major Jewish organizations rallied Monday to demand that the Assembly act to help a constituency that has long been mostly excluded from the $24 billion state education budget.

Leaders of Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Union and the UJA-Federation of New York assembled in front of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office to urge passage of the Parental Choice in Education Act.  The bill, proposed by Cuomo, reimburses low income parents for $500 per child in private school tuition and allows a tax credit for contributors to a private school scholarship fund.

That the three organizations are standing as one “shows how important this legislation is to us,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudah’s leader. “It brings real choice into the concept of parental options for education.”

Tax credits of up to 75 percent would be available for both individuals and businesses that donate to nonprofit scholarship organizations for students at non-public schools. This is capped at $50 million a year. Additionally, tax credits of up to $500 per student per year would be offered to non-public school families earning less than $60,000 a year.

The Senate already passed its own version of the scholarship fund tax credit portion, although they would give donors 90 percent off their tax bill instead of the 75 percent the governor’s bill would.

However, the Democratic-controlled Assembly has shown no inclination to move on either bill. Led by Ellen Jaffe, a Democrat who represents the Orthodox community in Rockland County, and Deborah Glick of Manhattan, many Assembly members deride the scholarship fund credit as a giveaway to the rich. An intense mail and internet ad campaign urges residents to call their legislators to oppose the bill.

In Orthodox areas in Brooklyn, there are two Assembly members who are not supporting it — James Brennan and Rodneyse Bichotte, both Democrats from Midwood. InvestInEd, a group advocating for private school aid, has made thousands of calls and sent mailers in those districts to urge residents to call Brennan and Bichotte to support the bill.

Brennan has said he has not decided but has privately told people that he cannot vote for the bill in its current version. Bichotte, who last week apologized for accusing yeshivah advocates of racism, is against the bill.

On Monday, Bichotte held what she called a “Public Thanks to Assemblymember Bichotte for her continued opposition of Governor Cuomo’s Education Tax Credit” rally in her district.

“This tax giveaway to his wealthy donors would divert funds from public schools into the hands of millionaire investors,” she said in a press release. “Despite major backlash from private school supporters of the bill, the assembly member (meaning: Bichotte) has remained resolved in her stance that the bill does not support all students and therefore should not be supported.”

At the Manhattan press conference, Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, framed the legislation as being about “fairness and civil rights.”

Parents who choose to send their children to private schools “are relieving the state of an enormous financial burden. It costs the state approximately $20,000 per child in public school,” he said. “We are relieving the state of billions of dollars in costs.”

The New York State legislature is set conclude its work for the year on Wednesday, June 17, so that a final determination of the fate of the governor’s bill will be made over the course of the next week.

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