The New York City government is starting quietly to fund local parochial schools.
The City Council is allocating $1 million of taxpayer money in this year's budget to purchase school buses for Jewish schools. Last year, the City Council paid $2.5 million to put computers in Jewish and Catholic schools.
Because the money is tucked into the council's thick budget, and because the amounts are small relative to the $15 billion a year spent on the city's public schools, most public school advocates and education experts said that they had not heard about the funding.
Critics call the money pork-barrel spending and argue that any available dollars should go to the public schools, which a New York judge, Leland DeGrasse, has ruled are $23 billion short of the funding they need to provide a sound basic education. Religious school officials argue that they are saving the state money by keeping children out of the public school system, and that it is to the city's benefit to ensure that that the religious schools continue to operate. Jewish schools have long complained that because their school day starts earlier and finishes later than public schools they need additional transportation.
Under state law, the city is obligated to provide the same transportation for parochial school students as for public school students. The city this year is giving an Orthodox Jewish group, Agudath Israel of America, $1 million to distribute to Jewish schools to buy their own buses.
The funding for the buses came at the behest of a Democratic City Council member, Simcha Felder, who represents the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Boro Park in Brooklyn.
"We want to break though the walls that do not allow private school parents to get a few benefits similar to public school parents," Mr. Felder said. "I've asked the administration to pump in money on their own…We would like the administration to make a commitment towards creating a level playing field for nonpublics for those services that don't call into question or jeopardize the separation of church and state."
A spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Robert Boston, called the computer and bus money a "form of religious pork-barrel" spending.
"Politicians use these grants to curry favor with various religious constituencies. It's especially disturbing when many of our public schools are starved for cash," Mr. Boston said. "But the only way to put a stop to it now would be to make their displeasure known at the ballot box — legally it's not something that can be successfully challenged in court right now."
"We think it's a disturbing trend," said Noreen Connell, the executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel, an advocacy group that wants increased funding for the city's public schools. "We're opposed to taxpayer funding for private schools."
A City Council member who is running for Congress, David Yassky, whose district contains a section of Williamsburg that includes many Orthodox Jews, pushed for $5 million in funding in this year's City Council budget for security at nonpublic schools. The funds were not approved, but Mr. Felder said that he would continue pushing for that money and for other funding for nonpublic schools in next year's budget.
The city's Industrial Development Agency has made tax-exempt bonds available for financing construction at some local private and parochial schools. And every year, the city doles out about $89 million in state and federal funding to about 900 parochial and independent schools that enroll enough poor students to qualify for the aid. Under state law, there is an obligation to provide equitable funding for nurses, computer software, and textbooks to religious and independent schools.
The city distributed the computers — which are not mandated under the law — through a lottery conducted by the Department of Education. The bus money will be given directly to Agudath Israel of America to distribute to Jewish schools.
"We're trying very hard to shift city policy," the vice president of Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, said. "If they make a small investment in making the nonpublic school survive, it will benefit them in the long run."
About 500,000 students in New York State attend independent and religious schools. In recent years several Catholic schools have been forced to shut their doors because of rising costs and declining enrollment. A tuition tax-credit that would have helped religious schools failed to win enough support to become law in Albany this spring.
"The funding that we receive is a tremendous benefit to our school children and we would be at a significant loss without it," the director of education for the state Catholic Conference, James Cultrara, said. "But the state and federal government needs to do something far more dramatic to help keep our schools viable and provide much more assistance to our families."
Asked about the funding for nonpublic schools, the deputy mayor for education, Dennis Walcott, said, "It was a decision made by the City Council."
"If there's a way that we can be helpful in addressing the nonpublics' needs, then that's what I'm here for," Mr.Walcott said. "My job as directed by the mayor is to make sure that we have open ongoing discussion."