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Party switch puts Brooklyn senator in line to aid religious schools

Newly elected Democrat Simcha Felder, a supporter of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private education, aligns with a Republican party friendly to the cause

When newly elected Democratic State Senator Simcha Felder announced last week that he would align with the Republican Party in the State Senate, it boosted the GOP toward possible majority control even if it does not end up with a majority of members, and prompted cries of disbelief from Democrats.

“Senator-Elect Simcha Felder’s announcement that he plans to caucus with Republicans is both a disgrace and a complete betrayal of his constituents,” Brooklyn Democratic Party chair Frank Seddio told the Daily News.

State Sen. Simcha Felder at his election night victory party in Brooklyn. Photo: David Winograd

 

But Felder had his reasons for switching sides, and a compelling one for many local residents is the state GOP’s past support for expanding tax benefits for private education — including the Jewish religious schools, called yeshivas, that blanket Felder’s newly created Brooklyn district. In this so-called “super Jewish” district, drawn by state Republican leaders to maximize the number of religious conservatives in hopes of picking up a seat, the number of students in private schools is three times higher than the enrollment for public schools.

In 2007, the Republican-led State Senate backed a proposal from then-Governor Eliot Spitzer to provide a tax deduction for up to $1,000 per child for parents paying private school tuition, which would include parents of children attending yeshivas as well as other parochial schools and unaffiliated private schools.

The Spitzer plan was blocked by the Democratic-led state Assembly, under pressure from public school teachers’ unions. Senate leadership also provided crucial early support for a $500-per-child tuition tax credit previously proposed by former Gov. George Pataki, which passed only after the state legislature agreed to make it a child credit available to all tax-filing parents of school age children in the state.

For the many orthodox Jewish families paying to send four, five and more children at a time to religious schools, such breaks add up quickly, since tuition at yeshivas ranges between $4,000 and $30,000 per child a year.

Rabbi Leib Kelman, the Dean of Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva in Midwood, said the school owes as much as $500,000 at the end of the school year. Photo: Anna Goldenberg

If it weren’t for his negoitation skills, Rabbi Leib Kelman would probably have to close down Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva. The dean of the Orthodox Jewish girls’ school in Midwood, Brooklyn, says he is “under a tremendous amount of pressure” to pay the bills for his school, whcich is almost entirely funded by parents’ tuition fees. When parents cannot afford to pay, they come to Rabbi Kelman’s office to negotiate the price.

“We tell the parent ‘Pay a lot of money’, and the parent says ‘no, I have six children, I don’t want to pay a lot of money,’  Rabbi Kelman said. “[We ask:] ‘How much money do you have, what do you spend it on?’ – ‘What’s it your business?’ It’s a negotiation. It’s always confrontation.” The school is in chronic debt, he says, even to its own teachers, who already earn significantly less than their colleagues at public schools.

During the Senate campaign this fall both Democrat Felder and his Republican rival, David Storobin, proposed school vouchers, which would go one step further and provide tuition funds directly to parents.

Rabbi Kelman, not surprisingly, gives vouchers two thumbs up. “That’s long past due,” he said.

Like most yeshivas in the district, his school provides both religious education in Hebrew and secular education that follows the New York State curriculum.

New York State currently permits some public funds to go to parochial schools, for textbooks, transportation, school lunches and some required services, such as taking attendance and administering mandated tests. The rest of the cost, about 90 percent, falls on parents.

“Why isn’t it fair to reimburse us for the secular component?” Rabbi Kelman asked, suggesting that parents’ tuition could be cut to $4,500 down from $9,000 per child. “We save the city’s money.” The city Department of Education allocated $16,541 per pupil in 2009-2010.

Getting a half-price break on tuition bills would make life easier for parents such as Emaniel Dewick, a 29-year-old assistant manager at an import company in Borough Park. He has four children and pays $12,000 for tuition every year. “Compared to our income, this is not really manageable,” he said. Dewick said he is in debt, and “the outlook is bleak.”

Voucher programs are well established in some other cities and states. The longest-running voucher program allows 23,000 students in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to attend 107 private schools using vouchers, costing the state $6,442 per student annually. More than two-thirds of participating students attend religious parish schools. A study evaluating the Milwaukee voucher program found that voucher schools cost the government $1,000 per student more than public schools.

In New York, Mayor Rudy Giuliani proposed a pilot voucher system in 1999, which was immediately blocked by the School Chancellor and the Board of Education.

Felder kept the voucher cause alive in the City Council, where he served from 2002 to 2010 and sponsored four resolutions in favor of tuition vouchers. None passed. Meanwhile, pressures to win taxpayer support for yeshiva tuition endured.

“I get no benefit for the real estate taxes I pay,” said Robert Tanner, father of four and business owner in Midwood. Tanner has a daughter in 7th grade at Prospect Park Yeshiva. His son is at a boys’ yeshiva, and his two older daughters go to college. In total, he pays $30,000 in tuition fees annually.

Said Tanner, “Instead of buying a fancier car, or maybe going on vacation more often, I’m stuck because I have to pay tuition.”

Additional reporting by Alana Abramson.