As Albany Divvies Up the Pie, Agudah Seeks Larger Slice for Private Schools
By Reuvain Borchardt
ALBANY — As the New York State government entered the final days of negotiations on its 2023 budget, Agudath Israel and yeshiva administrators visited the state capitol Wednesday to lobby legislators on its agenda, which this year centers around funding for private schools.
One top priority of Agudah is to increase funding for the The Non-Public School Safety and Equipment (NPSE) Security Grant, which private schools can use for security equipment. The governor’s proposed budget maintains last year’s funding level of $45 million, though the Assembly’s budget would raise it to $60 million.
Under state law, the governor releases her proposed budget, known as the “executive budget,” in January, followed by the Assembly and Senate each releasing their proposed “one house budgets,” followed by negotiations and passage of a final budget.
Agudath Israel Executive Vice President Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel issued a plea for the increased funding, in a meeting with staff of Brooklyn Assemblyman William Colton.
“There has been not just a spike but an explosion in incidents of hate crimes directed against Jewish people and Jewish institutions, Jewish buildings, synagogues, schools,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “To the Legislature we say, ‘Help us at least secure our institutions.”
State Sen. James Sanders addressed the Agudah delegation at lunch Wednesday, speaking out against the proliferation of antisemitic assaults.
“We have to stop these attacks,” Sanders said. “You could differ with people. You could differ with the position of Palestine. You could differ with all kinds of stuff. But … there will be no pushing anyone into the sea.
Noting that an antisemitic group recently announced a “Day of Hate” against Jews, Sanders said, “Anybody who starts talking about any of this madness, I’m going try to work with them for a moment. I’m going to say, ‘You do know that this is madness that you’re speaking of.’ And if they continue this, I cannot guarantee their safety.”
(One the day after Agudah’s lobbying mission, the Anti Defamation League announced Thursday that antisemitic assaults increased 41% in New York State from 2021 to 2022, as well as increases in antisemitic harassment and swastika graffiti. Orthodox Jews were the victims of 64% of the assaults, mostly in Brooklyn and Rockland County.)
Agudah also lobbied lawmakers Wednesday to ensure fuller reimbursement for services the state requires private schools to conduct.
The executive budget this year allocated $193 million — the same as last year — for funding of mandated services in private schools, such as taking attendance and issuing tests, and says that amount “shall represent fulfillment of the state’s obligation for aid payable in the school year.” However, the State Education Department has anticipated this year’s costs for these services to be over $210 million. Both one-house budgets removed the language indicating the state would not be responsible for the costs over $193 million.
Additionally, while private schools in New York City, Buffalo and Rochester are required to ensure that childhood immunizations are up to date, according to Agudah data the state is actually reimbursing the schools for just pennies on the dollar for these costs. The Senate one-house budget raised the reimbursement from $1 million to $1.9 million — still be far below the cost of the service, according to the Agudah data.
Agudah is seeking to have these items included in the final budget passed by both houses and signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Finally, Agudah, along with some 300 other entities representing public school districts, Catholic schools, yeshivas, and anti-hunger organizations, is advocating for the state to cover the cost of providing free school meals for all students.
The federal government has long provided free or reduced-cost meals based on a student’s family income; free meals are available for New York students living in households with income below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or just over $51,000 for a family of four. (If at least 62.5% of students in a particular school system are verified low-income — as is the case in some private schools as well as New York City public schools— students in that entire system get free meals, under the federal “Community Eligibility Provision.”)
During the COVID-19 pandemic, with businesses suffering and unemployment high, the federal government began providing free meals for all students, regardless of income — initially, when schools were closed, in the form of “grab and go” packages, and later, for regular school meals. But that program ended last June, leaving 726,000 students without access to free meals.
A bill proposed in the last legislative session would give all students free lunches, with the state making up the funding gap, estimated at around $200 million annually.
The Senate one-house budget includes this bill. The Assembly one-house budget includes this in the text of the budget itself, though the budget summary says it is only for public schools. The executive budget does not include this provision at all.
“Not only do we need every child to get food during the day,” Sen. Shelley Mayer told the Agudah delegation, but “as Jews we know the communal experience of eating together … It makes a difference in the spirit of our classrooms, of our kids and the way our schools work.”
While its actual legislative priorities this year are centered around school funding, much of the Agudah mission Wednesday focused on repelling what it deemed unwarranted attacks on the Orthodox community, particularly yeshivas, by The New York Times.
As the state Board of Regents last year considered and passed regulations on the secular-studies curriculum at private schools, the Times ran a series of articles alleging that Chassidish yeshivas offer an inadequate secular education and alleging the improper use of government funding.
Agudah has launched a website called KnowUs.org, seeking to combat the community’s portrayal in the Times articles.
The Times “did a hit job,” Monsey Sen. Bill Weber said at the Agudah lunch. “They wanted to give cover to the Board of Regents” to pass the regulations.
“People have to understand that the yeshivas are an essential part of who we are,” Rabbi Zwiebel said at the meeting with staff of Assemblyman Colton. “The academic rigor of the yeshiva education is remarkable. People who study the Talmud are gaining a very strong ability to read with precision, to talk with precision, to reason, to be able to engage in debate and all the things that education is really all about.”
“When you have a dual program of instruction, of course you’re going to have fewer hours devoted to secular studies than in the public schools,” Rabbi Zwiebel said, adding that a requirement that yeshivas offer similar hours of secular studies to that in public schools would be “robbing our ability of structuring the school day in a way where significant amounts of time can be devoted to the religious education that is so important to us.”
Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Agudath Israel’s director of New York government relations, told Hamodia following Wednesday’s mision, “While, sadly, we cannot expect much better from the Times, we were at least able to impress upon our state lawmakers that the community Agudah represents bears no resemblance to that depicted in the Times, and is a shining example to the rest of the state of accomplishment, scholastic achievement, professional success, unity, peace.”
Agudah is one of several yeshiva organizations currently challenging the regulations in court.
Passage of the final budget is expected by early April.
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