Governor Kathy Hochul signed the new state budget with provisions for the Jewish community including security funding, free meals for school children, an expansion of a child tax credit, and other priorities for Yeshivas and families.
It took a full extra month and five extensions, but Governor Kathy Hochul and legislative leaders have finally come to an agreement on a 2023-24 budget. The $229 billion document includes many items that were the focus of Agudath Israel’s advocacy efforts and are beneficial to yeshivas and their families.
These provisions include security funding, free meals for school children, an expansion of a child tax credit, and the saving of a program that currently provides close to $92 million to Jewish schools.
A lot of attention was given to the push for universal school meals by a large statewide coalition, which included the Agudah. The legislative effort was led by Senator Michelle Hinchey and Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas.
The final budget did not go nearly as far as was hoped, but will allow many schools and districts to serve free meals to all of their students, thanks to an allocation of $134 million. Agudah is working to help Jewish schools participate in this expansion and will continue to push for a truly universal program.
Rabbi Yehoshua Pinkus, Director of Yeshiva Services for Agudath Israel commented, “This expansion will encourage more schools to serve meals to their students, helping many struggling families, and improving children’s ability to learn and function properly throughout the day.”
Saving the Mandated Services Aid Program
One of the most significant budget victories for nonpublic schools is what is not in the final budget. Mandated Services Aid (MSA), the largest source of funding for nonpublic schools, faced a potential drastic 8% cut and problematic language that would have placed the entire program into jeopardy. However, thanks to the advocacy efforts of Agudath Israel and its coalition partners and the staunch support of many legislators, in particular Senator Shelley Mayer, Chair of the Senate Education Committee as well as Assemblymembers David Weprin and Simcha Eichenstein, the crisis was averted.
MSA, first passed in 1974 as a result of the efforts of the legendary Agudah leader Rabbi Moshe Sherer and others, reimburses schools for a host of services mandated by the state including testing, attendance taking, pupil data, immunization and more. Traditionally, the state has always reimbursed schools the full amount of their claims.
The executive budget, first released in February, allocated just over $193 million for combined MSA and CAP (Comprehensive Attendance Program). This allocation had not been increased for the third consecutive year, despite being $17 million below what the State Education Department requested in order to fulfill anticipated claims.
More troubling though, was budgetary language that capped the program at the amount allocated, which means that if claims exceed actual allocations as expected, schools would not be paid in full. Agudah immediately sprang into action and helped lead the nonpublic school response to this crisis. Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Agudah’s Director of New York Government Relations, testified before a joint committee about the risk to the MSA program. He later organized a coordinated response uniting the religious and independent schools and receiving the support of legislative leaders.
“Mandated Services, has been a staple of nonpublic school funding for close to 50 years,” said Rabbi Silber, who coordinated the Agudah advocacy efforts. “We were proud to work with a broad group of nonpublic school advocates in bringing this concern to legislators.”
“MSA and CAP reimbursements enable us to keep the students safe and properly fulfill state requirements without passing on additional costs to our parent body,” said Rabbi Baruch Rothman, Director of Institutional Advancement at Yeshiva Darchei Torah. “We are grateful to Agudath Israel for their tireless and persistent advocacy to preserve the continued existence of the program,” added Rabbi Rothman.
Empire State Child Credit
The budget also includes a major expansion of childcare funding by extending the Empire Child Credit to include children under the age of 4. This expansion, first proposed by Senator Jeremy Cooney and Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, has also been an Agudah legislative priority since last session.
Non-Public School Safety and Equipment Security Grant
Lastly, the budget allocates $45 million for the Non-Public School Safety and Equipment (NPSE) Security Grant. This program provides security and safety to nonpublic schools and was recently expanded to allow for critical capital needs that enhance safety. $25 million was also maintained for religious and independent schools, community facilities and summer camps under the Securing Communities Against Hate Crimes program.
“We thank Governor Hochul, Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Heastie and all their legislative colleagues for listening to our community’s concerns,” said Rabbi A. D. Motzen, Agudath Israel of America’s national director of government affairs. “We similarly thank our community members who traveled to Albany, reached out to their legislators, or took other steps to make their voices heard. It worked.”