New York State lawmakers completed voting on the 2019 budget early Monday morning, which includes both victories and disappointments for the Orthodox Jewish community. There were headline developments of general interest: agreement to an MTA overhaul; the introduction of congestion pricing in Manhattan, the first in the nation; a 2020 plastic bag ban; and recreational marijuana not (yet) legalized.
The developments of acute interest to the Orthodox Jewish community included:
Mandated services and CAP (Comprehensive Attendance Policy), the two most significant governmental funding sources for yeshivos, increased 3.6% this year to $115.6 million and $77.4 million respectively. These reimbursement programs, spearheaded by legendary president of Agudath Israel Rabbi Moshe Sherer z”l together with the Catholic Conference and other nonpublic school groups, create a structure whereby schools are reimbursed for certain tasks the state imposes on them, such as maintaining student attendance. In this way, the programs have successfully transcended objections some have had toward assisting religious institutions.
This increase comes on the heels of $310 million of new money allocated to yeshivos and nonpublic schools in recent years to rectify a CAP formula error in these costs’ calculation, as raised by Agudath Israel and other groups. Agudath Israel continues to fight for the final $12.2 million shortfall it calculates as outstanding, but was not included in this year’s budget.
Security is top of mind in today’s climate and has been a focus of Agudath Israel advocacy. But in addition to the need for adequate funds, security funds must be available where it is needed. Governor Cuomo included a new round of $25 million in funding for the Securing Communities Against Hate Crimes program, which has awarded security grants to NYS nonpublic schools on a competitive basis since 2018. However, for the first time, the program is now available for application by residential camps. The open nature of the camping environment poses an entirely different set of risks, and the need for security funding there is glaring. It was our privilege to work with Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, Senator Jen Metzger, and noted Bobov asken Rabbi Joel Rosenfeld, who tirelessly led the effort to help make this happen.
While Agudath Israel appreciates that the $15 million health, safety, and security allocation for nonpublic schools has been preserved in this austere state budgetary climate, we believe current realities justify an increase to that figure, as has occurred in neighboring states.
Immunization Recordkeeping Reimbursement
Agudath Israel expresses disappointment that one of its successful initiatives for the past two years, ensuring that schools are adequately reimbursed for reporting student immunization records to the state, was funded at $1 million, instead of its actual estimated cost of over $7 million. We believe that when schools are asked to function as the proxies of the health department, and gather, collate, and report information on a per student basis, they should be fairly reimbursed for it, per the law.
Agudath Israel also congratulates TEACH NYS/Orthodox Union for their efforts toward securing $30 million in funding for STEM subjects in line with their lobbying focus on this issue for the past three years.
Challenges Ahead: Substantial Equivalency
While all the above areas are important, the Agudah believes that some issues rise above funding concerns. The State Education Department’s promulgation of Guidelines last fall, which rigidly prescribe the hours and courses that define how our yeshivos operate, has rocked the collective yeshiva world. Groups taking advantage of the new political climate in Albany pushed for legislative changes this session that would further dictate how our yeshivos operate, and enhance penalties to those that fail to conform. These efforts were successfully opposed.
Agudath Israel, PEARLS, and Torah Umesorah have jointly filed suit in NYS Supreme Court for immediate emergency injunctive relief to prevent these Guidelines from being implemented. Equally offended by this unconstitutional attempt at private school control, the New York State Association of Independent Schools and the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents have each independently launched similar lawsuits against the state. In an extraordinary display of coordinated defense, the week of March 25th saw the Agudah file a dozen affidavits of support from leading Rabbanim, Orthodox Jewish professors, and two Agudath Israel attorneys addressing the state’s concerns and defending our autonomy in educating our children.
We ask all readers to join in tefillah to appeal to the Ultimate Judge for a positive resolution to this unprecedented challenge.