Agudath Israel of America hailed the historic agreement announced Thursday night between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, in which the Mayor pledged to implement major reforms in how the city’s Department of Education will deal with cases involving special needs students in yeshivos and other nonpublic schools.
The agreement came in the waning hours of this year’s state legislative session, as the Assembly was poised to vote on a bill introduced by Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein that would have required the city to take a number of steps to streamline the process through which parents in appropriate cases can be reimbursed for nonpublic school tuition costs. As a result of the agreement between the Speaker and the Mayor, the Weinstein bill has been tabled in the Assembly, to give the city an opportunity to implement the necessary reforms on its own.
While details of the Mayor’s pledges have yet to be released, activists who have been involved in the effort report that Mr. de Blasio is committing to institute truly meaningful reforms that go even beyond those targeted in the bill, and will be implemented in time for the coming school year.
“This agreement, when implemented, will bring invaluable benefits for children, parents, and the City of New York,” says Mrs. Leah Steinberg, director of special education affairs at Agudath Israel. “The system is now set to be fairer, more effective, and with less waste, than it has been in recent memory.”
Agudath Israel of America has long been in the forefront of efforts to help parents of children with special needs navigate the often complicated special education system so as to maximize government funded services for such children. While there have been significant strides over the years, reports Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, Agudath Israel’s vice president for community affairs, there remain considerable bureaucratic obstacles that all too often block parents from obtaining that to which they are legally entitled, or significantly delay the process.
That is why Agudath Israel has made reforming the system a top legislative priority, both in private discussions with lawmakers and government officials, as well as during its annual advocacy mission to Albany and roundtable discussions with New York City councilmembers. Legislation mandating change has been promoted over the past three years, and has gathered extensive support from legislators in both parties.
This year, under the leadership of Senator Simcha Felder, the legislation was passed in the New York State Senate, and was set for a vote on Thursday in the Assembly. However, with the agreement between Speaker Silver and Mayor de Blasio, the vote was put off. The Speaker has made it clear that the Assembly is prepared to put the legislation back on the table in the event that the City’s Department of Education does not satisfactorily adhere to the new administrative changes pledged by the Mayor.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president, expressed the organization’s deep appreciation to “the many heroes who contributed to this truly historic agreement.” He singled out Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Silver, the two main principals to the agreement, and the bill’s legislative sponsors, whose promotion of the state legislation helped lead to the agreement: Senator Felder, whose impassioned remarks on the Senate floor gained national attention and generated great momentum for positive change; and Assemblywoman Weinstein, whose tireless efforts over the past three years to advance the legislation were indispensable.
Other key legislators involved in the process were Senate Majority Co-leader Dean Skelos, Senator John Flanagan and Assemblymembers Dov Hikind, Phil Goldfeder, Michael Simanowitz, and Steven Cymbrowitz.
Rabbi Zwiebel also praised the work of community activists Chaskel Bennett, Leon Goldenberg and Shiya Ostreicher; the Orthodox Union’s New York political affairs director Jeff Leb, Rabbi Baruch Rothman of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, “and the many others, parents and concerned citizens, who lent their voices to this extraordinary effort.”