‘Pork Barrel’ ?

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The New York Sun

The fiscal year 2006 and 2007 New York City budgets included money for programs for students in nonpublic schools that critics, like Robert Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, have characterized as “a form of religious pork-barrel.”

But what is this “pork”? The 2007 item is a $1 million Council initiative aimed at improving transportation for non public school students. The 2006 initiative, a $2.5 million Council budget item, allowed all non public schools a chance to procure computers through a lottery administered by the Department of Education. In 2006, I also fought to secure $375,000 in discretionary funding to put new computers in four public schools in my district. Has anyone ever screamed “ham!” or “bacon!” at my public school initiatives? Of course not. The truth is that “pork barrel” language is never kosher when it comes to investing in the future of our children. What these advocates fail to understand is that the interests of public and non public schools are not mutually exclusive.

Ideally, it wouldn’t take Council initiatives to secure this type of education money, for public or non public schools. On the public school front, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity is bringing New York City’s public schools the long overdue funding that they deserve.

Our efforts meet more obstacles on the non public school front. The State Constitution prohibits the use of public money to aid religious schools. However, the courts hold that the Constitution does not prevent public money from aiding students, so long as it doesn’t contribute specifically to religious education. State statutes actually mandate that school districts provide for transportation, nursing, textbooks, and even computer software in non public schools, religious and secular. State law further dictates that the state must compensate non public schools for costs resulting from the implementation of state-mandated administrative tasks, such as taking attendance, standardized testing, and keeping immunization records. Additionally, qualifying non public students are eligible for participation in the National School Lunch Program. When a non-publicly educated child living in poverty eats a free lunch, is he eating from the “religious pork barrel?” Certainly not in any yeshiva.

More recently, in an effort to step up in part to new demands, the federal government implemented a short-term grant program that brought about $40 million to schools in New York City to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and to rid schools of asbestos. The program mandated that grants go to both public and non-public schools. According to the School Construction Authority, approximately $12 million of New York City’s $40 million went to non public schools.

As a locally elected official, my goal is to build on these precedents by setting our own in the City. Computers are the 21st century’s textbooks. A report conducted by Attorney General Spitzer in 2002 concluded that public money could appropriately pay for computers in non public schools. The $2.5 million dollars from the 2006 initiative only went so far in bringing computers to non public school students. From my perspective, the significant victory was getting the city to acknowledge that such spending on non public school students is not only acceptable under the law, but also important to the City’s progress. The former Council speaker, Gifford Miller, and the Bloomberg administration, which administered the program through the Department of Education, deserve recognition for their foresight in fostering the program.

The 2007 Council transportation initiative will help hundreds of non public school students get to and from school safely. Speaker Christine Quinn deserves the utmost praise for her support of the program. As it is now, the state mandates that all students have access to the Board of Education’s yellow bus services. However beneficial this is, it proves ineffective for students whose school days are longer than those of students in public schools. The program is not, as some have suggested, exclusive to Jewish schools; that would be immoral and unconstitutional.

The next area of concern is security — a necessity for the well being of all of our children in a post-9/11 New York. The Department of Homeland Security has approved the use of departmental funding for security in private institutions. The state of Maryland, meanwhile, has a program in place whereby religious schools may obtain grants for security purposes. New York City needs the same for its non public schools. While it is perhaps unreasonable to seek permanent public safety officers at all non public schools, it is well within reason to fight for funding for security cameras and intercom systems. Like the wheelchair ramps installed by the ADA grant program, such technology is a realistic necessity of the 21st century.

It’s about time we get these initiatives out of the so-called “pork barrel” and onto the baseline.The city cannot afford to lose any more non public schools, but certain advocates continue to waste their time fighting negative campaigns against programs that benefit non public school students. Meanwhile, their time could be better spent actually helping public schools. The fight continues to bring New York City its fair share of both federal and state taxes to help cover the educational demands of all New York City children.While we’re at it, we must see to it that continued steps are taken towards leveling the playing field between what non public school parents give in tax money and what they get back in education for their children.

Council Member Felder represents New York City’s 44th Councilmanic District, covering the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Midwood, Bensonhurst, and Boro Park.

The New York Sun

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