By Jeff Leb
Governor Cuomo’s most recent budget held good news for Jewish day schools. The Comprehensive Attendance Policy (CAP) and Mandated Services Reimbursement (MSR) payments, long underfunded, are being increased. The governor has proposed the full funding of MSR and an additional $7 million toward the arrears. Work remains to get CAP to its full funding level, but this is a major step forward and means millions in aid to Jewish day schools. In addition, security funding—which includes private schools—has been pegged at $4.5 million this year, marking another critical piece of the budget pie for the day-school community. In total, $9 million in security funding has been allocated for this current year and the next fiscal year.
But the news may be getting even better. The governor’s signature universal pre‑K (UPK) legislation will, over five years, pump more than $2 billion into expanding pre‑K options across the state. Charter schools are included in the UPK proposal, and we believe that private schools, including Jewish and other religious schools, will be included as well. Other states, such as New Jersey, which has an expanded pre‑K program, and Maryland, which has proposed one this year, include non-public schools, JCCs, synagogues, and the like in their programs. New York should be no different.
In New York City, where Mayor de Blasio has continued his push for UPK, the administration is including a demand that the program should be truly universal, with no income limit for eligibility.
Quality pre‑K is essential. Studies show that pre‑K yields lasting benefits well into adulthood. As a community dedicated to education—and to children—increasing educational opportunity is a core value, particularly in the wake of the recent Pew Report, which indicated that young Jewish families are struggling to connect affordably with the community. Making Jewish schools and synagogues eligible for universal pre‑K funding creates an easy entry into Jewish communal life.
While UPK is something all New Yorkers can agree on, especially Jewish New Yorkers, another legislative opportunity is being considered by the state legislature that the entire Jewish community should support: the Education Investment Incentives Act, also known as the Education Investment Tax Credit.
Modeled on tax-credit programs across the country and taking the very best aspects from each, the Education Investment Tax Credit revolutionizes educational opportunity in New York. If passed, the bill would provide a tax credit to businesses or individuals donating either to public-school benefit foundations or to private-school scholarship organizations.
It’s a simple concept. The state already provides tax credits for everything from film production to energy efficiency. This bill just adds the fundamental state interest of education to that list.
Such education tax-credit programs, which have been consistently upheld as constitutional by state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court—since the money flows exclusively to parents and not to schools—have transformed education for the poor and near-poor in states such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. They have also helped Jewish communities raise tens of millions of dollars to provide scholarships to families in need, helping those families directly, and indirectly lifting a burden off other parents in the school and the broader local community.
As an example, the Jewish Tuition Organization in Phoenix collected more than $2.6 million last year, funding more than 400 scholarships at seven different day schools spanning the entire denominational spectrum. Similar success stories can be told in Florida and Pennsylvania, the two states with the longest-running tax-credit programs.
In an era when Jewish day schools are struggling or giving up entirely, as evidenced by recent closures of some Schechter schools, these four budget bills could form a new foundation for quality, affordable education.
Each year, parents ask if there is anything they can do to relieve the tuition burden. This year, that’s a resounding yes. Between universal pre‑K and the education tax credit, our elected officials in Albany can transform our state’s educational landscape, bringing relief to struggling parents and helping every student in any school. The OU Advocacy-Teach NYS Initiative is committed to ensuring the gains in CAP, MSR, and security funding are all maintained, but we are equally relentless in expanding the constitutionally permissible aid made available to families in Jewish day schools.
We will work to see that Jewish institutions are included in any final universal pre‑K plan, and we will fight for the passage of a true education tax credit. We urge anyone with an interest in Jewish education, in education broadly, and in Jewish continuity to join our community network and work with us to ensure that New York State legislators hear our voice.
Together, we can make this the year Jewish education makes the grade in Albany. v
Jeff Leb is the New York State Director of Political Affairs for the Orthodox Union and the Director of the OU Advocacy-Teach NYS Initiative. He can be reached at JLeb@ou.org.