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N.Y. State Could Funnel $31.1 Million To Yeshivas, While Making Other Cuts

New York Governor David Paterson is seeking to make New York the latest state to channel public funds to yeshiva students through legislation that even staunch defenders of religion-state separation acknowledge as constitutional.

A provision inserted in New York State’s austerity budget at Paterson’s insistence would provide $31.1 million over two years to students in “faith-based” schools of higher education. It’s expected that yeshiva students would be the great majority of recipients, even as other student aid programs are slashed or eliminated.

The measure’s prospects took an uncertain turn over the Fourth of July weekend, as Paterson vetoed a slew of spending measures sought by state legislators, in which the financial aid measure was buried. It remains to be seen whether the funding for rabbinical students will emerge in the final version after negotiations between the governor and legislature.

Nevertheless, constitutional experts concede that Paterson has structured the proposed aid in a way that probably complies with the constitutional requirements for religion and state separation. Indeed, New York appears to be following the lead of several other states, including New Jersey, Illinois and Maryland, which have pioneered similar methods of channeling government funds to yeshivas in a way that appears to pass constitutional muster.

But some legal experts question whether the measure will meet the requirements of the New York State Constitution, which has stricter prohibitions.

Critics have also raised questions about the timing of Paterson’s action. He inserted it in his budget plans last January, just nine days after he collected $140,000 at a fundraising dinner held in his honor at Kiryas Joel, an upstate village established by the Satmar Hasidic sect. Akiva Klein, who is a powerful businessman and a board member of the Uta Mesivta of Kiryas Joel, a rabbinical school with 1,300 students, chaired the dinner. Paterson was planning to run for re-election at that point, though since announced that he will not.

“I wonder if that proposition would have been presented if the governor had not announced his campaign plans that early on,” said Francis Clark, a spokesperson for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a good government organization. “It’s hardly a shocker and not the first time an elected official used their role in government to set himself up for reelection.”

A spokesman for Paterson denied that the Kiryas Joel fundraiser motivated him to insert the provision.

Democrat Deborah Glick, chair of the State Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, was among those who sought unsuccessfully to remove the measure from the budget. But the Assembly’s most powerful member, Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represents Manhattan’s Lower East Side, supported it strongly. So did the state senate’s Carl Kruger, a Brooklyn Democrat and chairman of that body’s Finance Committee, whose constituency includes many yeshivas that would benefit.

“My objection is to the kinds of cuts we have made to higher education across the board,” Glick told the Forward. “This is a fairly expensive new initiative in a year when we’re told there are no new initiatives, and have cut up to 25% to community colleges. And it’s more than upsetting that the governor turned around and gave approval to a program that probably has a significant gender bias built in.”

Kruger failed to return repeated phone calls seeking comment. A spokesman for Silver confirmed that the Assembly speaker supported the measure, but the speaker declined to respond to questions about the provision’s rationale as other financial aid programs were being cut.

Supporters of the measure point out that rabbinical students are already eligible for federal tuition funding in the form of Pell Grants. Paterson, they say, is merely seeking to make those receiving federal funds also eligible for the state’s Tuition Assistance Program. The budget provision will make $31.1 million in student financial aid available over the next two years under TAP for students at “faith-based” higher education schools. Thus, the government funds do not then go to a religious institution, which could render it unconstitutional. It is the students receiving financial aid who decide where to apply it.

To fortify the measure’s constitutionality, the assistance also may not go to students enrolled in a program whose goal is specifically religious ordination. Yeshiva students can still take advantage of this because many of them go to schools that offer a preliminary Judaic studies degree prior to conferring rabbinic ordination.

“The bill is the governor’s way of saying that there are a group of schools, including rabbinical institutions, and they are recognized by the federal government and there are students who should not be frozen out because of funding. He is giving equal footing to the students,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America.

But Marc Stern, acting co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress and a leading constitutional expert on religion-state issues, said: “The general understanding in New York law is that state funds can’t go to schools where religious education is… an integral part of the program.” Stern termed the measure “a pretty damning statement from the governor.”

But even Stern conceded that the plan would probably withstand a legal challenge. Herman Schwartz, constitutional law professor at American University Washington College of Law and a strong advocate of religion-state separation, agreed. “If Paterson had set up a different fund just for students of faith-based schools and excluded other students in the state, then that would have been unconstitutional,” he said. “If he’s simply saying, ‘I want to include these students in this program,’ then he can.”

As of July 7, the legislature was three months past the statutory deadline by which it was supposed have passed a budget and was still mired in disputes with Paterson on a slew of other, unrelated budget issues.

Contact Maia Efrem at [email protected]

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