With the city Board of Education undergoing its largest changes in more than 30 years and major state budget cuts anticipated, Rabbi Leib Kelman is hoping the girls at his 1,200-student Prospect Park Yeshiva don’t lose out on the special needs services, textbooks, remedial support and other aid funneled to the school through the local district.
New York’s vast school bureaucracy, which for three-plus decades was administered largely from 32 decentralized districts, is in the midst of a major restructuring, with the mayor and chancellor gaining power.
At the same time, Gov. George Pataki recently proposed cutting $1.24 billion from the state education budget.
And while the spotlight in the upheaval has been on public schools, advocates for the city’s approximately 240 yeshivas and Jewish day schools say the changes will affect their institutions as well.
Jewish schools, like other parochial schools, receive millions of dollars worth of services from the state and city. Although parochial schools do not receive state allocations, they are eligible for government funds for such programs as remedial tutoring, services for special-needs children and transportation. In some cases they even receive textbooks for secular subjects.
Most of these programs, while funded with state and federal dollars, are administered through the Board of Education.
Now, amid massive staff turnover at the Board of Education (and the elimination of elected school boards) advocates for Jewish schools face what an official at Agudath Israel of America calls a "brave new world."
"A lot of people who were our key contact people either left or are in the process of leaving," said David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs at Agudah, which plays a major role in lobbying for Orthodox schools.
The changes "cause us a lot of concern until we know who the players are and what’s the process for resolving issues and how to reinstate the institutional history of the relationships," agrees Rabbi Martin Schloss, school services director at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.
In addition to striking up relationships with the new education decision-makers, advocates are also scrambling to ensure that the new structure offers them some guaranteed voice.
"The previous system with all its flaws did ensure that our community would have say in education policy at the local district level," Zwiebel said. "As long as policymakers were elected by the community at large, then we had some input."
So far, grassroots input under the new structure appears to be limited to councils composed of public school parents. However, all the details of the new system have not yet been announced, and may become clearer once Schools Chancellor Joel Klein meets with representatives of non-public schools. Klein canceled a recent meeting but is expected to reschedule in the near future.
The restructuring does not necessarily mean gloom and doom for non-public schools. Prospect Park Yeshiva’s Rabbi Kelman said one potential "silver lining" to the turnover at the Board of Education is the large pool of former staffers with expertise who may be interested in working for Jewish schools.
In addition, a centralized system could ensure more consistent services for Jewish schools.
Until now, the level of services available to Jewish schools has varied considerably, with heavily Jewish areas like Borough Park and Flatbush more "receptive to the issues and concerns we’ve raised than some districts where there are only one or two Jewish schools," Zwiebel said.
"Special education in particular has varied very widely from district to district across the city," he said. "It may well be that consolidation process could in the long run be beneficial if we’re dealing with people at the top who are ultimately sympathetic to our position."
One challenge in gaining a sympathetic ear, however, may be the general climate of scarcity, with massive education cuts proposed statewide.
Advocates for Jewish schools worry that the belt-tightening, in addition to hurting programs such as pre-kindergarten, will also affect the rates at which non-public schools are reimbursed for implementing state requirements, such as mandatory testing.
The cuts come at a time when Jewish schools (heartened by a supportive report from the state attorney general last summer) had been expecting to see increases in government services.
"We’d hoped we would be able to add new funding, like for technology and teacher training," Zwiebel said. "There’s none of that in the governor’s budget, and it may be unrealistic to hope we might get that enacted in a tight budgetary year like this."