Representatives of Agudath Israel of America converged upon Albany this week to line up support for education tax credits.
With just two weeks remaining until the end of the legislative session, advocates from both the religious Jewish community and other nonpublic school sectors converged in Albany to lobby legislators for the passage of a bill providing these tax credits.
The governor’s bill earmarks $70 million as a tax credit for low-income parents, awarding $500 per child for whom parents pay tuition. In addition, the bill provides for $50 million in tax credits for donations to scholarship funds benefiting low and middle income nonpublic school students throughout New York State.
The main focus of the advocacy effort was the State Assembly, which has yet to pass any Education Tax Credit legislation. While shoring up support for the bill from a number of key Assembly members, Agudah askonim encountered strong resistance from others who oppose the legislation.
The delegation started the day by convening in Assemblyman Michael Cusick’s office where they heard an update from Mr. Cusick, and another of the bill’s key sponsors, Queens Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz.
From there, the delegates split into four groups and fanned out across the Assembly to meet with Assembly members Peter Abbate, Rodneyse Bischette, Edward Braunstein, James Brennan, Alec Brook-Krasny, David Buchwald, Michael Cusick, Steven Cymbrowitz, Erik Dylan, Phillip Goldfeder, Aileen Gunther, Andrew Hevisi, Dov Hikind, Todd Kaminsky, Ronald Kim, Charles Lavine, Joseph Lentol, Joseph Morelle, Walter Mosley, Catherine Nolan, Nily Rozic, Sheldon Silver, Michael Simanowitz, JoAnne Simon, Latrice Walker, Helene Weinstein, and David Weprin, among others.
“The mixed results were expected,” observed executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, who, along with Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Community Affairs, Members of the Board of Trustees, Leon Goldenberg and Chaskel Bennett and other activists, led a full day of meetings with legislators.
“It’s clear that we still have a long way to go before getting this legislation enacted. However, we were gratified to see a broad base of support from Assembly members who support parental choice in education and who recognize that private and parochial schools are not a burden but a boon to taxpayers. We are hopeful that our continued advocacy in the coming days will bear fruit, that our friends and supporters in Albany will overcome opposition to a bill that is truly to everyone’s advantage.”
The bill’s provisions flow from the premise that all children are entitled to an education and that parental choice in a child’s education should be similarly assured. The choice to educate one’s child in a nonpublic school should be encouraged through policies that promote such choice, including relief from the high cost of tuition, the bill’s supporters say.
Under the present system, parents who pay tuition for private or parochial schools also pay, additionally, the same taxes all citizens are required to pay to support the public schools. Nonpublic school parents are thus paying double and often more for the right to exercise parental choice in education.
Many regard this as an unfair burden. Shouldn’t the $23 billion allocated by the state for public education provide at least minimal tuition aid for low-income tax-paying parents who, for ideological or pragmatic grounds, favor nonpublic school education for their child? And shouldn’t the state encourage more private sector giving to scholarship funds for needy students by providing a tax credit for contributions?
That is precisely what the governor’s bill aims to accomplish.
Opposition to the governor’s proposal is intense, however, as powerful teachers unions promote the fear that the tuition tax credit bill will siphon away money that “belongs” to public schools. The unions’ vehement opposition to the bill has alienated many legislators and weakened support among some who previously endorsed it.
Far from “stealing” money from public schools, private schools actually save taxpayers massive amounts, Leon Goldenberg explained in one of the lobbying sessions with legislators.
“With over 400,000 children in non-public schools – approximately 150,000 are in Jewish schools while 250,000 are in Catholic and other denominational schools – at the private expense of parents, public schools in this state are being relieved of an enormous financial and educational burden,” he said. “Imagine all private and parochial schools in the state shut down tomorrow and these children enrolled in public schools. To educate them would mean opening 22,000 additional classrooms. That would bankrupt the school system.”
He cited the situation in Buffalo where a number of Catholic schools closed down, sending 3,000 children to the public schools. The result? Intense overcrowding in classrooms, inadequate equipment and facilities and the resulting decline in the quality of education.
“The many delegates who devoted a full day in Albany to lobbying political officials on behalf of the klal are to be commended,” said Rabbi Lefkowitz, noting the broad scope of the joint effort, with delegates coming from various Chasiddic groups and from neighborhoods across the state including Boro Park, Far Rockaway, Flatbush, Monsey, Queens and Williamsburg.
Their presence sent a strong message about the importance the Torah community places on the issue of education tax credits, as well as its high regard for the political process.
Rabbi Lefkowitz also thanked Assemblyman Hikind who hosted the delegation in his office, and who has been an outspoken advocate for the tuition relief bill.
Agudath Israel advocates and askonim have reinforced the need for the religious community to mobilize and make its voice heard in Albany. “If we want this legislation to pass, don’t expect it to happen without the strong, vocal backing of the whole community,” said Chaskel Bennett. “The askonim are powerless on their own. Our strength derives from those we represent, each and every parent and all the children who represent our future. Everyone must act. Contact your assemblymen with the urgent message that you expect this bill or something very close to it to emerge in the final days of this legislative session.”