State Funding Reinstated for Yeshivah Busing in Chicago

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After two years of choosing between paying high costs for private transportation or carpooling, parents and students in Chicago’s many Jewish schools will once again benefit from state-sponsored busing.

Amid dire financial straits and the lack of a state budget in Illinois, a grant that had funded yeshivah busing for a decade was terminated, dramatically impacting the daily routine of many families and schools.

Earlier this month, for the first time in two years, the legislature was successful in passing a budget. The multibillion-dollar spending package included a grant for a little over $1 million to supplement the costs of transportation for Jewish schools in Illinois.

“The last few years have been very hard for the community, and we are very grateful that the grant was finally reinstated,” Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, director of government affairs for Agudath Israel of Illinois, told Hamodia. “The financial situation is very tight, and the political situation is still polarized, but both sides recognized the importance of providing safe transportation for all students.”

In the time that yeshivos were without publicly funded transportation, schools sought various solutions. Some partially subsidized costs, and others canceled transportation. Most provided parents with the option of busing, but at high costs per child. For many families, the cost of sending multiple children was too high, and they were left with little option but to make complicated and time-consuming carpooling plans. The responsibilities of having to transport children with multiple start and end times forced some to give up full-time jobs.

Rabbi Yehoshua Pinkus, executive director of Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov and Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi, said that his schools supplemented costs, but still had to charge $350 per child for each direction. The result was that fewer than 50 percent of families opted for busing.

“It made things much harder for parents and for the school,” he told Hamodia. “Some kids came late, minyanim were a challenge for the older boys, and dismissal was a long and difficult process.”

On Tuesday, Rabbi Pinkus said that his schools had reopened bus registration and that he expected 95 percent to be covered.

“It will make a big difference for the school and for the whole community,” he said. “It will make a big difference in people’s lives. A mother can work on getting her kids out the door and fathers can attend kollel boker or a shiur or what have you, without every morning being a headache.”

Unlike New York, New Jersey and several other states, Illinois has no mandate to cover the costs of transportation for nonpublic school students. Nearly 12 years ago, largely through the advocacy of Rabbi Yehiel Kalish, who was then vice-president and national director of government affairs for the Agudah, a special grant was procured from the state to cover the costs of transportation for students attending Orthodox schools. Rabbi Kalish, who now leads a private lobbying firm, was highly instrumental in this year’s efforts to reinstate the grant as well.

As the legislature and governor sparred during the two-year budget impasse, the allocation was one of the many victims, along with many other similar grants and earmarked funds.

On their yearly mission to the state capitol of Springfield, Agudah representatives raised the issue of restoring the grant with Governor Bruce Rauner, who expressed his support for the funding.

“The governor told us he wished the state could pay for the transportation of all students, but that it simply was not viable at this point, but he said he would be willing to consider a grant for the yeshivos,” said Rabbi Soroka. “It gave us renewed hope that we might really get the grant back.”

With the support of Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives Michael J. Madigan, the grant was put back into the budget for the coming year. The governor vetoed the budget, due to a tax hike it called for, but his decision was overridden by both chambers of the legislature and the spending bill became law — along with the busing grant. The governor’s verbal support for the program made activists optimistic, but they were still waiting for a clear payment plan to be announced by the relevant government agencies, to clear the possibility of bureaucratic roadblocks.

This week, as the grant payments were formalized, many schools began to offer bus registration anew to parents at a cost of $125 per student. As per the conditions of the grant, the funds are given to the Agudah directly, which then arranges payment with busing companies on behalf of schools.

The program is available to all Orthodox schools in the state, all of which are located in the Chicago metropolitan area.