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New Push For Tuition Aid

New Push For Tuition Aid

Activists for Jewish, Catholic and independent private schools have founded a new lobby to make educational expenses, including tuition, deductible from state taxes.

But in a departure from previous efforts, the coalition is also advocating for public school parents by seeking tax credits for tutoring, mentoring, test preparation and other expenses.

"This is a new approach in many respects," says James Cultrara, an advocate for the state’s approximately 300,000 Catholic students, in an interview from Albany Tuesday. "We’re trying to help all families from all walks of life."

Cultrara was part of a delegation with Jewish leaders and others who met with legislators and Jeff Lovell, a senior advisor to Gov. George Pataki.

An estimated 500,000 students, or 16 percent of the stateís school-age kids, attend private schools. About one in five attend yeshivot or Jewish day schools.

Initiated by the Brooklyn-based Sephardic Community Federation, the new coalition, which calls itself Teach NYS, is laying the groundwork for a rally on Feb. 14 expected to draw as many as 10,000 parents and children to Albany. The demonstrators will call for passage of pending bills that would allow the tax deductions and similar credits for corporations who donate funds or materials to help schools.

"This new coalition presents a historic opportunity for advocacy," says Democratic Assemblyman Ryan Karben of Rockland County, who has developed an agenda with Republican state Senator Martin Golden of Brooklyn to help private schools. "Jewish education has not really taken a lead on the domestic agenda of the Jewish community, certainly not in state capitals, where the money is."

The new push comes at a time when Jewish organizations are being called upon to do more for families burdened by the high costs of affiliated life. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty last month unveiled a study that showed some 53,000 local middle-class households struggling to make ends meet.

Teach NYS is co-chaired by James F. Gill, who is also chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, and Elliot Gibber, a food manufacturer and board member of Yeshiva University.

The bill that would create tax deductions for parents is sponsored by Golden in the Senate and Democrat Assemblyman Vito Lopez in the Assembly. The bill allowing corporate tax credits in exchange for donations to schools is sponsored by Democrat Dov Hikind of Brooklyn in the Assembly and Republican Serphin Maltese of Queens in the Senate.

David Greenfield, executive director of the Sephardic Community Federation, said Teach NYS "is not about advocating any particular bill but a series of initiatives to offset expenses and encourage corporate and individual donations. We are creating an organization that is going to be around for a very long time to advocate on behalf of parents."

Teach NYS is also supported by the lay leadership of Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union and the Catholic Conference, the public affairs arm of the Catholic Archdiocese.

Cultrara said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the coming state budget will allow for the tax credits. "Since the state is enjoying a $2 billion surplus, it certainly is possible," he said, adding that he was encouraged when Pataki, in his recent State of the State address, called for "empowering all families and all students."

Proposals for tuition vouchers, which are public subsidies for private school students, have gained limited traction across the country. A Florida court struck down one such effort last week. In addition to constitutional issues, teachers unions ardently oppose diversion of funds from public schools. But tax credits may garner fewer objections.

"The voucher movement is kind of stalled," said Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who writes extensively on education reform. "There are only about 21,000 kids in the country receiving vouchers. Tax credits are easier to get through, and there are now schemes [to allow them] in many states. It is particularly important in the minority community. People are looking for alternatives to failing public schools." (United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten told the New York Sun Tuesday her union opposes the tax credits.)

Michael Tobman, a former aide to Sen. Charles Schumer now working as a consultant to Teach NYS, said vouchers "aren’t even on our radar screen. This is a reasonable effort and one in which no one’s being vilified. Those who send their kids to public schools will benefit more than anyone else."

After declaring that Christine Quinn was the best candidate for City Council speaker, Councilman Simcha Felder was one of only two members who did not vote in favor of her ascension last week.

Council records show that Felder was marked "present, not voting" during the voice ballot, which yielded 49 in favor and one opposed. The "nay" belonged to Brooklyn’s Charles Barron, who objected to the role played by county Democratic leaders in the selection process.

Felder would only comment that "I’m very happy that Chris Quinn became speaker." Sources said Felder, who is Orthodox, consulted with various rabbis and could not get a consensus on whether halacha permits him to support Quinn, the Council’s first gay speaker.

Observers note that even without voting for Quinn, Felder helped her by not backing her most serious rival, Bill de Blasio, also of Brooklyn. De Blasio did not immediately return calls for comment.

A correction: This column erroneously reported on Dec. 30 that Felder was the only Orthodox Jew serving in the City Council; Councilman David Weprin of Queens is also Orthodox.

Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, expected to announce this week a committee to explore a Democratic gubernatorial bid, has retained Ezra Friedlander of Brooklyn as a consultant on Jewish affairs. Suozzi is to meet with Orthodox leaders in Borough Park on Wednesday as well as members of the Jewish media before addressing the dinner of Shema Koleinu, a Jewish school for autistic children in Manhattan.

Friedlander, who worked for 2001 Democratic mayoral nominee Mark Green and 2002 Democratic state comptroller candidate Bill Mulrow, said Suozzi "can relate to the Jewish community on all levels."

Suozzi is widely seen as the underdog in a primary against Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who has raised tons of money and gained a national profile. Spitzer’s spokesman, Ryan Toohey, declined to comment.

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