A bill currently awaiting the signature of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo offers the Orthodox community the possibility of significantly increased public funding for private religious schools.
The bill, passed by both houses of New York State’s legislature in June, will enable at least some — and perhaps many — Orthodox children with special education needs to be taught in Jewish parochial schools at state expense rather than in the public school system’s own special education programs.
UPDATE: Gov. Andrew Cuomo plans to veto the bill that offers the Orthodox community the possibility of significantly increased public funding for private religious schools.
If signed, opponents say, the new law will create a religiously segregated special education system. The bill’s defenders say that it will allow for placement of some children in social environments better suited to their needs.
The bill’s passage marks a political milestone for New York’s ultra-Orthodox community, which lobbied hard for the legislation. This comes as Democrats face increased competition from Republicans for Orthodox votes, particularly in Brooklyn. Two Brooklyn Democrats have already lost elections that looked like easy victories. Now, incumbent Democrat lawmakers from these same areas appear to be listening to Orthodox constituents with increased attentiveness.
“You pay attention to people who have the potential to put you out of office,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a right-leaning New York Democratic political consultant. “I think Democrats have reason to pay attention and to be very mindful of servicing a constituency that, frankly, is marginal, long term, for Democrats.”
A recent study from the UJA-Federation of New York found that Jews make up 23% of the population in Brooklyn. Those Jews, the study suggested, aren’t necessarily liberals. More than half the Jews the study counted in New York City are members of the conservative-leaning Orthodox or Russian-speaking Jewish communities.
The New York State Assembly member who introduced the special education bill, Helene Weinstein, represents a Brooklyn district where Jewish support for Democrats has been particularly fickle.
Weinstein’s district overlaps in part with the congressional district represented by Republican Representative Bob Turner, whose surprise victory in a special election last fall was attributed largely to dissatisfied Jewish voters. Her district also overlaps with the heavily Jewish State Senate district where Republican David Storobin, a Russian-speaking Jew, narrowly won a special election in May that he was expected to lose.