Education

New York City Council members push for private school vouchers

Members of the council’s “Common-Sense Caucus” support the bill

Councilman Joseph Borelli. Credit: NYC council. Councilman Kalman Yeger. Credit: Wikimedia

Sep 14, 2023 4:20 PM

Updated: 

A group of 8 City Council members, including Councilmember Kalman Yeger, who represents Borough Park, are pushing new legislation to require the city to study the feasibility of offering tuition vouchers to families sending kids to private schools, according to the New York Post

Efforts to subsidize private school tuition – often called “school choice” by its advocates – have been successful in several states around the country, primarily those that are governed by Republicans. In recent months, Arizona, Florida, and Ohio have all approved voucher programs for which all children in the state are eligible, regardless of the family’s financial status.

The legislation in New York, which was introduced on Thursday, comes amid a report by the advocacy group Teach Coalition, which is a project of the Orthodox Union, that asserted many young Hasidic families are leaving New York and moving to states that offer private school tuition vouchers. The advocacy group recommended that New York introduce these vouchers, too.

Members of the council’s “Common-Sense Caucus” support the bill. The caucus consists of two Democrats – Yeger and Robert Holden of Queens – and all six Republicans who are on the 51-member council, including three councilmembers whose districts contain Orthodox communities: Inna Vernikov, Ari Kagan, and David Carr.

“Given the current composition of the council, I don't think it will pass,” political consultant Howard Graubard told Shtetl. “The members who support it come from constituencies where it is popular, so they get credit without delivering anything beyond a bill.”

The bill would have The Department of Finance and Department of Education jointly conduct a study exploring the possibility of giving families up to $10,000 each year to reimburse them for private school tuition. According to data from the New York State Education Department, 18% of New York City students – over 200,000 children– attended private schools in the 2021-2022 school year. By the Post’s estimate, a voucher program could cost the city over $2 billion.

Graubard believes the legislation, if passed, would violate the state constitution, which states that government funds may not pay for “any school or institution of learning wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine is taught.”

“That means unless and until our state constitution is amended, the city cannot provide reimbursement for religious schools as that is indirect aid,” Graubard said. “So, even overcoming the odds that the City Council would ever pass such a law, the City could not do it, without facing litigation, which it would surely lose.”

Private schools are allowed to receive government funding for transportation under New York State’s constitution, and they benefit from several other forms of indirect funding. State and city money already pay for food programs, security, hiring certain math and science teachers, and complying with mandated services, such as taking attendance and collecting immunization records. Last September, the New York Times found that Hasidic boys’ schools had collected over $1 billion in government funding in the prior four years – despite, in some cases, offering an inadequate secular education.

The Teach Coalition has advocated in the past for New York State to offer private school vouchers, but the idea hasn’t gained traction in Albany. Vouchers are unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled New York state legislature, according to a report from Lohud. State Sen. Shelley Mayer, chair of the Senate’s education committee, told the outlet that public schools are her first priority and that she doesn’t believe the legislature would consider adding funding for private schools, except in limited circumstances.

Lauren Hakimi is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, New York Jewish Week, WNYC/Gothamist and more. She graduated from CUNY Hunter College with degrees in history and English literature. Hailing from an Iranian Jewish community on Long Island, she looks forward to shining a light on stories that matter to the Jewish community. Follow her on Twitter @lauren_hakimi.