Candidates embrace cause of religious schools

Last week, a crowd amassed outside of Amnon’s Kosher Pizza, a frequent campaign stop on 13th Avenue in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to hear Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D – Brooklyn) endorse mayoral candidate Bill Thompson’s plan to improve education in New York City. At this stop that meant how, as mayor, Thompson would mitigate some of the financial stresses facing yeshivas — private religious schools educating Orthodox Jewish children.

Late-afternoon school bus pickups paid for by the city start in September. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Late-afternoon school bus pickups paid for by the city start in September. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Thompson, who has been trying to cash in on his family’s long history of working with Brooklyn’s Orthodox communities, promised to step up city-funded busing of private school students, restore child-care vouchers used predominantly by Orthodox families that were cut by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and hasten approvals for city funding of private schooling for students with special needs.

With the Orthodox vote expected to be split in the September 10 Democratic primary, Thompson is not the only Democratic candidate making such promises to this well-organized constituency. While Republican mayoral candidates openly embrace vouchers or tax credits to assist families who send their kids to parochial schools, Democratic mayoral candidates, under pressure from the teachers’ union and other public school advocates opposed to public funding for private schools, have had to get creative to attract yeshiva voters.

At the same time, after mixed results in Albany during the last two legislative sessions, those lobbying for increased public funding for parochial schools see opportunities to significantly advance their cause with a new administration at City Hall.

They’d like to see the child-care voucher funding restored, and have the city deliver on a new state law that requires it to pay for busing of students picked up after 4 p.m. – a provision that benefits yeshivas, which often dismiss students after 5 p.m.

According to Hikind, the busing has been hampered by a combative Bloomberg administration, which called it an “unfunded mandate.”

“[State Senator Simcha] Felder has been fighting for years for this transportation bill and now we are running into bureaucratic problems,” said Hikind. “Our kids go to school until 5, 5:30. I think we should be applauded for that. Providing transportation is not an issue of church and state. In a Bill Thompson administration, we will not have that problem.”

Marge Feinberg, the New York City Department of Education spokeswoman, responded in an email: “We have been working very closely with the community on this and Assemblyman Hikind was even at the kick-off in Boro Park. This takes effect in September and we are ready.”

Streamlining the approval process for public funding of the private school tuition of students with special needs is another important issue to the parochial school lobby, one where Albany has been less receptive. Under federal law, districts are required to pay for private school for students with disabilities if public schools are not equipped to serve the student.

In 2012, Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein (D- Brooklyn) introduced a bill that required districts to reimburse parents’ tuition costs within 30 days and ended the current annual reviews of these private school arrangements. Governor Cuomo vetoed the measure, saying that it “unfairly places the burden on taxpayers to support the provision of a private education.” A similar bill failed to get to a vote in the most recent session.

The yeshiva-parent community is now looking to mayoral candidates for reprieve. At Hikind’s endorsement of his education agenda, Thompson promised to reform the system. “Right now they go to court and their parents fight that battle year after year,” the candidate said. “The decision should be based on the [individualized education plan] after the initial court decision, which has to happen. It’s not right to force them back into court year after year.”

At a candidate forum with board members of the Orthodox Union, Council Speaker Christine Quinn struck a similar note: “I want to move away, very clearly away, from forcing special needs parents into court.”

At that same forum, Councilmember David Greenfield said, “her commitment would make that bill moot,” referring to the vetoed Albany legislation.

Gotham Schools reported this week that the city expects to spend $256 million in 2014 on private school tuition for special needs students, including those in yeshivas.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who represented parts of Borough Park on the City Council, has been wooing the Orthodox vote with another popular subsidy to yeshivas – child-care vouchers. From their introduction in late 1990s, Priority 7 vouchers have been overwhelmingly used by Orthodox Jewish families. In 2009, Bloomberg first threatened to eliminate the $16 million program and was successful two years later. De Blasio has been fighting the cut since.

“I am disgusted that, in 2009, Mayor Bloomberg came to this community, begged and pleaded for support knowing that the support of this community would be one of the only ways he could win. Took that support and turned around and took away every single voucher for this community,” de Blasio said back in March. “The chutzpah of that is unbelievable, inappropriate and unfair. I have a simple goal: I want to restore those vouchers. Because it is the right thing to do.”

At a May forum for Democratic mayoral candidates hosted by The Jewish Press in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, the candidates were asked were they stood on private school vouchers. The candidates came to Manhattan Beach ready with statements that explicitly rejected vouchers but also promised to alleviate some of the financial pressures on parochial schools and families who send their children there. But one candidate stood out, Comptroller John Liu.

“I cannot support vouchers, or tax credits or private education,” he responded. “Because I think we need to maintain the resources for full public education that is accessible to everybody in this city.” His statement was followed by a round of applause mixed with groans from a divided audience.

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