It has been an eventful two weeks in Albany. After lawmakers were unable to reach a timely consensus for the April 1 fiscal year, New York State skirted an unprecedented government shutdown, unusual for Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has presided over timely NY budgets since 2011. Instead, Governor Cuomo introduced two so-called extender bills on Monday, a stopgap measure to keep the state afloat until May 31.
Yet, in another political twist, lawmakers reached a final budget consensus on Friday night, far in advance of the May 31 extended deadline.
While the budget includes many items of general interest: $2.5 billion toward water treatment upgrades (no more copepods?), and the nation’s first, free public college tuition program for families making up to $125,000 annually, the Agudath Israel legal team scoured the legislation for an early report on items of specific interest to our communities.
Security is top of mind for our children today, and it was a major priority for Agudath Israel this session in Albany. We applaud the Governor for introducing a $25 million initiative toward improving security for at-risk nonpublic schools, community centers and day care facilities. This new source of security funding follows the state heeding our request to raise security funding for nonpublic schools last year, when NY tripled its annual allocation from $4.5 million to $15 million for nonpublic school security, reallocated again this year. This funding is appreciated and sorely needed in today’s climate of hate.
Another key improvement impacts nonpublic school participation in the Smart Schools Bond Act (SSBA). The SSBA is a $2 billion commitment by NYS toward updating education for public schools, but includes a provision for technology items to nonpublic schools. For over a year, Agudath Israel has been at the forefront, along with other nonpublic school groups, of advocating that the funds allocated to nonpublic schools under the SSBA have been wholly inadequate from a legal and equitable perspective. See Agudath Israel brief here. After multiple hearings at the Governor’s office, the Senate, and the Assembly on this topic, the final budget allocates an additional $25 million toward certain technology equipment for nonpublic schools. With yeshivos accounting for 36% of the nonpublic school sector, this means over $9 million in new funding to yeshivos. The language of the bill, in fact, cites the precise rationale Agudath Israel articulated in its brief for the allocation of additional funds. But perhaps more significantly, the budget includes a directive to the SSBA Review Board to disapprove any district plan not in accordance with the Agudath Israel methodology for calculating funds – which should result in additional redirected funds toward nonpublic schools.
In another chapter in a decade-long saga, the state budgeted $60 million to repay CAP debt to nonpublic schools. Comprehensive Attendance Policy (CAP) funding is one of most significant state sources of funding to yeshivos. Nearly a decade ago, Agudath Israel led the nonpublic school community in identifying a flaw in the funding formula, resulting in an unjust shortfall of millions to nonpublic schools. Over the past two years, a whopping $250 million dollars has flowed to nonpublic schools to repay that debt. Agudath Israel estimated the shortfall at $330.2 million dollars. In Albany this year, one of our goals was to retain that final $80.2 million. With $310 of the total estimated $330.2 million paid or budgeted to be paid, we are close to finally, and fully, closing this gap.
Last year, Agudath Israel conducted a detailed survey of 63 schools across NYC to determine the correct reimbursement rate for nonpublic schools complying with the mandate to track immunizations. Avrohom Weinstock, Esq., Associate Director of Education Affairs, opened the issue on the Senate floor by illustratively counting out 60 cents in petty change – the current reimbursement rate per child in NYC, Rochester and Buffalo, set in 1984 and never updated. The Agudath Israel survey revealed that nonpublic schools have been shorted $7.7 million dollars for immunization reimbursement; the correct reimbursement rate is closer to $30 per child! We applaud the Senate specifically for standing up for nonpublic schools and championing the correction of this flaw in response to our pleas. This will be a recurring, well-deserved new funding stream to our mosdos.
Agudath Israel would also like to congratulate TEACH NYS/Orthodox Union for securing $5 million in funding for STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), the focus of their lobbying efforts this year. These funds will benefit a number of Jewish schools across the state.
A consequential disappointment this year, however, is tuition tax credits. Yeshiva parents struggle courageously to pay taxes and yeshiva tuition so their children can receive a quality Jewish education. Tuition may be a family’s single, most onerous financial burden. Recognizing this significant communal challenge, Agudath Israel’s legal team drafted, and Agudath Israel’s askanim advocated, an innovative tax credit which would provide a credit directly to middle-class parents struggling to pay tuition. While we do not hide our disappointment in this year’s pronouncement on the matter, advocacy is a marathon, not a sprint. Agudath Israel advocates of NY will continue to coordinate and collaborate with our Regional Directors across the country who have successfully championed game-changing school choice funding initiatives in Florida, Maryland, Ohio and other states.
Agudath Israel is pleased with many of these developments: tangible increases in aid to yeshivos; much needed increased security funding; and widely expanded new allocations toward modernizing classroom learning. Government is listening. But the plight of the middle-class, tuition-paying parent is real and dire. New York State must respond and assist these taxpaying parents who save the state nearly $8 billion, and have a right to choose where to educate their children. We hope that our representatives heed this call.
The NY Senate is expected to vote on the agreed budget on Sunday evening with little to no substantive amendment. Look for an updated analysis of the NYS enacted budget after Yom Tov.