Op-Ed: The Most Important Jewish School-Funding You’ve Never Heard Of

(Thursday, March 21st, 2013)

yweThe challenge of day school affordability is not just an economic but an existential one; it is about the continuity and vitality of the next generation of Jews. While enrollments are at an all-time high, so are tuition bills.

That is why securing greater government support for our schools is an absolute priority focus for communal organizations. This is done by both advocating for greater support for our schools in Albany and establishing relationships with our elected officials who represent the areas where we live and work.

Groups like the OU-Teach NYS Initiative, UJA-Federation of New York, Agudath Israel of America, the Board of Jewish Education and Torah Umesorah have proven to be great advocates for schools in need. For years we have proposed or supported bold proposals that would deliver new aid to day schools and their families. But in today’s tough economic times, new initiatives are merely academic discussions.

Thus, we have turned our advocacy efforts to the resources and funding streams that currently exist in New York State and, in particular, to expanding support from a government program you probably have never heard of. There are approximately 400,000 students attending private schools in New York State and private-school students account for 13 percent of all students throughout New York. However, the private school community receives only 1 percent of the funding that goes toward education. This seems patently unfair, and it is.

Since 1974, New York law has imposed several requirements on our schools, including, among other responsibilities: reporting student enrollment and faculty employment numbers each year; administering tests to students in elementary school and high school; reporting which students graduate each year; and verifying that all students are vaccinated.

These Mandated Services Reimbursements (MSR) were accompanied by a promise to reimburse private schools for the cost of compliance, estimated at $90.4 million for this school year. For thirty-three years this promise was kept. Then, faced with a budget shortfall in 2007, the state abandoned the idea of full reimbursement and cut MSR by a hefty amount. Although we have collectively managed to get MSR restored to its full funding level, the state still owes the private school community over $30 million for the years that our schools were underpaid.

Another type of service mandated by the state is the Comprehensive Attendance Policy (CAP), which requires private schools to report student attendance for every grade by every class period. CAP requirements first took effect in the 2003-04 school year and cost private schools $38 million that year alone. Unfortunately though, New York State wasn’t nearly as accommodating in its payments of CAP as it was with MSR.

From the start, the state ignored its obligations to reimburse private schools for CAP. For the 2003-2005 school years, the Education Department did not allocate any CAP funding, claiming the schools failed to submit student attendance data. In fact, the Education Department could have gathered attendance data from the private schools’ Mandate Services Reimbursement forms. Since then, the state has continuously under-funded CAP. Currently, the private school community should be receiving $58 million in CAP funding – but received $33 million last year.

In addition, the continued underpayment for CAP has resulted in a deficit of over $210 million. That’s a lot of money that would go a long way if it were allocated to the private schools. MSR and CAP are real funding streams that go directly to each school that complies with the reporting, which includes most private schools. They go straight to the school’s bottom line and relieve a large part of the financial burden every school faces.

Last October I was privileged to have been hired by the Orthodox Union, in anticipation of its merger with Teach-NYS. This merger combined the resources of two organizations with long records of accomplishment in the field of education, one across the nation and the other in New York. To further the reach and impact of these two organizations, we partnered with many different Jewish schools across the religious spectrum. No private school is immune from the issue of rising payrolls and tuition costs and this was one issue that could unite schools of all religious philosophies. What we established was a tremendous partnership with many schools, representing thousands of children across New York State.

In early March our coalition, along with UJA-Federation of New York, took more than forty participants representing Jewish schools across the state on a mission to Albany to advocate on the front lines for increased finding for our schools in the form of CAP and Mandated Services and Security funding. We met with fifty-three elected officials, including the leadership of the Senate and Assembly as well as Governor Cuomo’s senior advisers. Our message was united and clear – private schools save New York State millions of dollars and we want the funding we are mandated to receive.

Albany’s budget negotiations are reaching their conclusion in these final weeks of March. It is crucial that all who care about the viability and affordability of our schools contact their legislators and urge that MSR and CAP funding must be fully restored and that a payment plan must be enacted so that the schools can receive the full funding they deserve.

Jeff Leb.

Jeff Leb is a political strategist and community activist who serves as the Director of Political Affairs for the OU-Teach NYS Initiative – an organization whose sole purpose is to fight for the needs of private school parents. Jeff is the co-founder of the JCC of Marine Park, Brooklyn and also acts as the Treasurer of the Peninsula Library Board in the Five Towns and is a staunch advocate for the needs of the Jewish community.

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of YWN.

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2 Comments

  1. nfgo3 says:

    I assume that the author of this piece is correct that New York State has underfunded certain of its obligations to private schools, including the Jewish ones. However, those obligations as described in this article are imposed by the legislature, not necessarily by the US Constitution, and are only intended to cover the cost to the private schools of complying with certain reporting obligations imposed on them by New York State. Admittedly, every dollar helps, and if New York State has agreed to provide such funding, it should do so. But that is not a long-term solution to the high cost of providing a fully religious education to Jewish children.

    New York State should not, and cannot under the US Constitution, support religious education. I am glad for that, because (among other reasons) I know that if taxpayer dollars are used to support religious education, we Jews will not fare very well in the contest for that money. The long-term solution for reducing education costs for Jews seeking a religious education is to separate secular and religious education by sending Jewish children to public schools for non-religious education, and also sending them to Jewish schools for religious education. It is not a perfect solution – the notion that secular and religious matters are utterly separable is unsound – but it is ultimately the best solution to the problem of taxpayer support for education in a democracy.

    I believe that Jewish communities have been slow to recognize that the future lies in the use of dual educational resources because, in part, the Jewish educational establishment is protecting its resources, including its heavy investment in fixed assets like school buildings, and its desire to provide a source of employment for the personnel who run its schools. That desire, while admirable and understandable, has put an enormous burden on observant Jews and threatens to weaken the frum community. I would hope that the frum community will recognize this and gradually modify its reliance on exclusively Jewish schools for the education of our children.

  2. BigJew says:

    The question remains, will parents see any benefits from this, or will it be used entirely by the schools administration…
    I don’t recall tuition EVER going down, even when schools do get extra finances from the city.

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