The Unfinished Task

New York State Senator Simcha Felder didn’t mince his words:

“It’s a shande!”

All the rest is commentary.

The senator was outraged over the disappointment in Albany Tuesday when the State Assembly scuttled a bill that would have finally brought much needed relief to religious communities in New York.

Senator Felder’s heroic efforts are well known in the community. He sponsored and championed a bill, passed in the Senate in January, that would allow donors to a private school scholarship fund a 90 percent tax deduction on their state tax bill.

The bill would have addressed an old imbalance of religious parents paying millions in taxes to support public education, from which they receive no benefit. Particularly, as we come close to July 4, this injustice resonates in the American psyche with the revolutionary slogan “No taxation without representation!”

Senator Felder’s commentary is also a clarion call:

“To add salt to the wound, community representatives, activists, and organizations are going to praise the Assembly and governor for allocating $250 million directly to schools. This is money owed them from previous years. The promise was to help parents. The Assembly and governor just don’t care about tuition paying parents, period! They must think we are clueless. We’re not, and we won’t forget this.”

In May, Governor Cuomo presented his own bill that would grant the tax deduction, plus add a $500 per child tax credit for low-income families.

With Senator Felder championing the cause, and the strong advocacy of askanim, the community had reason to be optimistic that this would finally be the year that such legislation would be enacted.

Further fueling the optimism, Governor Cuomo attended a school choice rally at Yeshiva Shaare Torah in Flatbush in May, where, as reported in these pages, the governor said, “Education is your child’s life; it’s your family’s decision. But for your family to have a decision it has to be a real decision. And that’s why I was talking to Sol [Werdiger] about the Italian concept of mishpachah. But there’s another Italian concept I wanted to talk to you about — it’s called tzedakah. … It’s been used to mean charity but the deeper definition is what Assemblyman Hikind said — it’s about justice.”

Then the governor got to the heart of the issue: “It means that if it’s a real choice, you have to be able to afford it. And if you’re paying public taxes [to fund the public school system] with one hand and then you have to pay private tuition with the other, it’s no longer affordable. … So if you can’t afford the choice, you don’t really have the choice. And that’s not justice.”

Agudath Israel and other advocacy groups helped organize a massive grassroots campaign to write to members of the Assembly, urging them to pass the tax credit bill. But the efforts failed, and the Assembly ultimately blocked tax credit legislation.

While the tax credit was blocked, the state did allocate $250 million to reimburse nonpublic schools across the state for costs involved in fulfilling state mandates. However, those funds were not a gift or grant. They were owed by law for nonpublic schools complying with statutes on mandated services. For more than 10 years the schools dutifully laid out money to fulfill state requirements. But the state has not kept its part of the bargain and only paid the schools a fraction of the funds owed to them.

Among those who fought the good fight for the tuition credit bill was former Majority Leader Dean Skelos, the current Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Senator Martin Golden.

Members of the Assembly who lent a shoulder included Michael Cusick, lead sponsor of a version of the bill, Michael Simanowitz, co-sponsor, and Steve Cymbrowitz, Phil Goldfeder, Dov Hikind and Helene Weinstein.

But Senator Felder and the others who put so much effort into this campaign aren’t ready to call it quits.

It is a setback, but the battle isn’t over. Now the community has to take up the baton and keep the campaign going.

As the Mishnah in Avos (2:16) says:

“The task is not yours to finish. But neither are you free to evade it.”