Years of lobbying by Agudath Israel of America appear to have borne fruit now that the state budget includes allocations to help struggling undergraduate rabbinical students pay tuition.
The measure, which will extend the state’s Tuition Assistance Program next spring to religious schools that qualify for federal Pell grants and meet other qualifications, has enjoyed broad support among political leaders but has fallen short of the final budget in the past few years.
While campaigning for governor last October, Andrew Cuomo told Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, one of the two Satmar chasidic rebbes in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, that he supported the grants.
Noting that then-Gov. David Paterson had taken up the cause, Cuomo, who brought up the topic on his own, is seen in a YouTube video of the meeting saying, “If he can’t do it, I will make it a priority in my administration.”
Paterson ended up vetoing his own initiative in a battle with the Legislature over other funding, but when Cuomo took office he did not immediately add the funding. Only after both houses of the legislature pressed the matter did the governor agree to spend about $3.2 million on the funding, enough for 600 grants, a sum expected to grow to about $18 million when fully implemented.
While other religious schools will be eligible, the largest share of applicants are expected to be some 5,000 students at about 50 schools in the state accredited by the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudical Schools, an Orthodox group.
One of the key figures in getting the funding into the budget passed last week was Dean Skelos, the Republican Senate majority leader, who represents a district that includes many heavily Orthodox areas in Nassau County.
Skelos is winning kudos from Orthodox leaders for his role in spearheading the funding.
“He certainly was an avid champion of the [funding],” said David Zwiebel, Agudah’s executive vice president for governmental affairs.
Brooklyn’s Dov Hikind, who advocated for the funding in the Assembly, said, “Some people took more of the initiative. If you want to say Dean Skelos deserves credit for taking the first step [this year], you might say that. He was fabulous.”
But the funding is also bound to raise hackles at a time when Albany faced tough budget decisions, slashing funding for vital social service programs, reducing education spending and cutting aid to New York City that could lead to the layoffs of thousands of teachers.
The state teachers union, New York State United Teachers, did not respond to a call for comment at press time.
But the Washington-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has fought against state-chartered schools that teach Arabic or Hebrew culture, is considering a legal challenge.
“We believe that the training of clergy should be paid for by members of the various faiths, not the taxpayer,” said Robert Boston, a spokesman for the group.
Henry Stern, founder of NY Civic, a government watchdog group, said he viewed the funding as a “ploy to get Orthodox support in the 2012 races” [for legislative seats] and said it represents “a serious First Amendment question.”
Advocates of the funding note that rabbinical schools are already eligible for Pell grants and that the schools perform a civic function by cultivating teachers and community leaders.
A report Tuesday in City Hall News, an independent journal covering local politics, alleges that Skelos became a champion for Agudah after speaking to representatives of the organization about a potential special Senate election in Brooklyn.
Sen. Carl Kruger, who represents heavily Orthodox Flatbush and surrounding areas, is facing federal corruption charges, accused of taking $1 million in bribes. A conviction would present an opportunity for the Senate Republicans to increase their two-seat, razor-thin majority.
Citing unnamed sources, City Hall News said Skelos met with Agudah’s top lobbyist, Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, and other officials of the organization days before the budget was passed. The paper quoted a Senate Republican spokesman confirming that the meeting took place but denying any quid pro quo, Skelos did not retur a call to his office from The Jewish Week seeking comment.
Rabbi Lefkowitz told The Jewish Week Tuesday that the only time he met Skelos last month was at a March 6 breakfast organized by Agudah at a private home in Lawrence, L.I., to discuss the impact of budget cuts on Jewish schools and community organizations.
“No one mentioned Kruger,” said the rabbi. “It’s absolutely untrue.” He said that while Kruger’s legal troubles were announced last month, Skelos “committed to help us way before that.”
Skelos’ position on the rabbinical TAP funds is not new. During his last stint as majority leader in 2008, he sponsored a bill supporting the funds that passed unanimously.
“He didn’t suddenly come on board,” said Hikind, who noted that the Democrat-ruled Senate also passed a bill last year with Brooklyn’s John Sampson as leader. “No one had to make a deal. Almost everyone supported this from the very, very beginning.”
Hikind said that while Skelos was an aggressive advocate, it would not have made it to the final budget draft without support from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Cuomo. He said he had been in regular communication with the governor’s executive deputy secretary, Joe Percoco, about the funds.
“Everyone had to come together; there were a lot of conversations,” Hikind said. “It was an ongoing process long before anyone knew anything about Kruger suddenly having any problems.”
Although the indictment was announced only last month, there were media reports of a federal probe of Kruger’s fundraising activities as far back as June. The Republicans gained the majority in the Senate late last year after several highly contested, close battles were decided.
Jeff Wiesenfeld, a former aide to Gov. George Pataki, said in an interview Tuesday that the issue had been on the radar of local Republican Jewish activists for a long time. But he noted that this year, “in the Senate district where the most adherents of Agudah reside, there is political turmoil. There are all kinds of possibilities there, and clearly with a substantial Orthodox and Russian and gentile population that doesn’t vote reflexively [for one party], there is the potential in the district to pick up a Republican seat.”
Asked if he thinks any deal was made Wiesenfeld said, “Officially, it is not appropriate to make specific arrangements for legislation or for appropriate results, but it is a fact of life that you will support those people who support your causes.”
Tuition grants for rabbinical students are also available in New Jersey and Connecticut. The language in the budget makes future allocations automatic, without legislative approval, for grants of up to $5,000.
Zwiebel said that the state Department of Education could decide in future budgets to expand eligibility.
Rabbi Lefkowitz said his organization defended the funding in tough budget times because all three powers in Albany agreed on it last year. While the state is cutting aid to public education, the rabbi said, “our education is also valuable, by the way, and this should have been done many years ago.”
Rabbi Lefkowitz said another victory for religious schools in the state was a so-called “fungibility bill,” which allows private schools to use unspent money designated for one qualified area on another area. For example, a school that chooses not to upgrade computer software could instead spend the money on textbooks rather than be forced to forgo the allocated funds, as in the past.
In other news likely to impact efforts to publicly fund religious education, the U.S. Supreme Court this week upheld the right of Arizona to grant income tax credits for contributions to private tuition scholarship groups that help students at private schools.
In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the high court overturned a lower court’s ruling that the credits were unconstitutional on grounds that those who brought the suit had no standing to do so. The ruling said the funds to religious education do not come from the state but from private citizens, and so could not be blocked by the plaintiffs.
“The high court upheld school choice today,” said Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Orthodox Union on Monday. “The principles of government respect for private choices in education and government neutrality in programs which can aid and support such private choices is a critical issue for the Orthodox Jewish community and other American faith communities.”
But the Anti-Defamation League called the decision a setback for religious liberty.
“The distinction the court drew in this case between tax credits and treasury expenditures is illogical and misguided,” said National Director Abraham Foxman and National Chair Robert G. Sugarman in a statement. “However, what is more disturbing about the ruling is that the Supreme Court has dramatically undercut the ability of taxpayers to protect religion and government by intervening when government money is improperly spent.”