So it came as a painful blow this past weekend when an important bill that would have significantly assisted parents throughout New York State was rejected at the very last minute during budgetary negotiations. The way Felder describes it, “It’s as if they were telling the parents of New York‘s non-public school students, ‘Drop Dead!’”
Those are strong words coming from a state senator, but it pretty accurately reflects the disappointment and frustration that Felder is feeling right now.
For many years, political leaders were considering different ways to provide some relief to parents who carry the tremendous burden of tuition payments in non- public and parochial schools. It’s an issue that affects our community, of course, but also others. Not surprisingly, Catholic leaders are also involved in these efforts. According to Felder, they are even more anxious to pass legislation than we are.
“The parents in our community will continue sending their children to yeshiva no matter what,” he points out. “But the Catholic schools are losing many of their students to the public schools simply because parents can’t afford tuition. And it‘s forcing some of their schools to close down.”
Thus did the Catholic Conference develop a seemingly ideal plan for assisting parents that would be perfectly legal, would maintain the separation of church and state, and would benefit public school students as well. Named the Education Investment Tax Credit Proposal (EITC), it would allow people to contribute almost all of their New York State taxes towards a foundation that would help students with tuition scholarships and achieve a tax credit at the same time. The credit would total 150 million dollars, split between public and non-public schools.
“In this way,” says Felder, “the donation would go to an established foundation and not directly to the yeshiva.”
Those who would prefer to donate to public schools would be able to do so as well. It seemed like a win-win situation for everyone involved.
There was plenty of support for this initiative and not just from the religious Jewish community. Republican Senate leader Dean Skelos supported the bill, as did many of the unions. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, campaigned aggressively for it to pass. All told, 65 labor unions, community groups, educators and community leaders endorsed the proposal.
On March 5th, Agudath Israel of America weighed in on the issue as well, calling it their top 2014 legislative priority. In a letter to State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Rabbi Yehiel Kalish writes, “The thousands of parents we speak on behalf of, like your very own children, are making enormous financial sacrifices to provide the religious education their children require. Enactment of this legislation is critical to helping many of those families on the margin obtain privately funded scholarships for their children and alleviate their financial struggle.”
According to the Agudah, the bill had the co-sponsorship of two-thirds of the State Assembly and similar legislation had previously passed overwhelmingly in the State Senate twice. To almost everyone involved, it seemed like the proposal would certainly pass. Or, as Felder says, “Everything looked like it would be fine.”
But in politics anything can happen. Apparently, the Teachers Union was vehemently opposed to the proposal, as it is in their best interests to keep New York children in public schools rather than private schools. Be that as it may, the governor met with Silver and Skelos to hammer out a budget plan. Albany-based sources tell us that Skelos tried to push it in, but Silver was adamantly opposed and Cuomo eventually relented to him. “It seems to me,” says one insider, “that Shelly Silver killed this bill.”
As it became apparent late Thursday evening that the proposal was in danger, Felder decided to appeal to the public. “Until then,” the senator reflects, “we preferred to negotiate quietly, because most of the time that’s the best way to accomplish our goals. But when I saw this thing exploding in front of our eyes, I decided to ask the community for help.”
Felder sent out mass robo-calls to the households in his district, asking them to call both the governor and the speaker of the Assembly immediately. “We gave out their Albany-based 518 numbers and instructed people to respectfully ask that they please pass this bill.” The request was also publicized elsewhere by various organizations.
The response, says Felder, was overwhelming. “What can I tell you?” he says. “The phone lines were literally flooded. I was told they actually shut down the phone system within the first three hours of our request.”
To Felder, this was perhaps the most gratifying highlight of the entire episode.
“I may be terribly disappointed in our legislative leaders,” he says, “but I am tremendously proud of our constituency who rose to the occasion. It was really inspiring. People understood that this was all about helping our children.”
A VANISHING GLIMMER OF HOPE
On Friday, negotiations were still ongoing. And while many worked feverishly, trying to get the bill passed, the budget that was hammered out late Friday evening essentially rejected the EITC proposal.
“They threw us a few crumbs,” says Felder, “in order to pacify us. But don’t let any askon or organization tell you that that we did well in this budget. We did not. We were taken for granted and taken advantage of. That’s a fact. Albany preferred to be beholden to the unions and political power brokers rather than the children of New York and their struggling parents.”
Others expressed their disappointment as well. Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, said, “The rejection of EITC is a difficult pill to swallow.” And Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind released a statement saying, “Never could I have imagined that the message of this year’s budget would be that education is important for all children in New York State, unless you attend a yeshiva or a parochial school. This was the one legitimate way to bring relief to struggling parents.” On a personal note, he added, “I have never been so disappointed that we have once again failed the families of yeshiva and parochial school students.”
“We feel let down by the new Albany budget,” said Isaac Sofer of Satmar. “The majority consensus of disappointment originates from the notion that our institutions do not deserve the same appreciation as public education. It was anticipated all along the process that this will be the historic year of passing legislation that would alleviate the financial burden of parochial schools.”
CHANGING THE POLITICAL MINDSET
In order to put matters in perspective, Senator Felder explains: “Of the 137 billion dollar budget, less than one hundredth of one percent of it will benefit non-public school issues.” Says Felder, “They are giving us bubkes.”
In contrast, he says, other groups, such as the film industry and the fishing industry, do receive substantial tax credits. “I’m not saying they don’t deserve it. I just think that the children should be entitled to their share as well.”
Felder says that it’s time to change our political mindset. “Our community has this attitude that we should take what we are offered and say thank you, period.” Instead, he says, “We should be united and pick a priority that’s important to all of us. We should send a clear message that we want what we deserve.”
New legislation is constantly being considered. Another bill, to be considered shortly, will provide tremendous relief for parents of special needs children. “It will essentially eliminate the necessity of undergoing a harrowing and costly IEP (Individual Evaluation Program) every year.” This time, Felder hopes that the community will remain united and the legislation will be passed. In general, he says, we must maintain an awareness and understand without a doubt that our involvement makes a difference. And when we send a strong and united message to Albany, they hear us loud and clear.
Meanwhile, the Senator has warm words for those who heeded the call. “When I came to shul Friday night,” says Felder, “an 83-year-old man came over to tell me that he called Albany as soon as he heard my message.” It’s people like that who encourage him to keep up the fight despite the setbacks and obstacles along the way. “We will continue to fight to help tuition paying parents families to get this tax credit passed, even during this session.”
“It’s not over till it’s over,” he concludes. “Yeshuas Hashem kiheref ayin.”