As state lawmakers attempt to finalize a $168 billion budget, the Assembly Democratic majority has accused state Sen. Simcha Felder of being the culprit behind the stalled negotiations. In the 63-member Senate, Felder holds a particular place of importance. There are 31 Republicans, one vote shy of a majority. There are technically 32 Democrats, but eight of them identify as members of the Independent Democratic Conference, which has broken away from the mainline party caucus. Stuck in the middle is Felder, an iconoclast Democrat who caucuses with Republicans.
Felder, whose Brooklyn district includes a large population of Orthodox Jews, is almost single-handedly stalling a massive package of bills over the relatively parochial issue of educational standards for religious schools. The state senator wants to relax state Education Department requirements which mandate that private schools provide an education “at least substantially equivalent” to public schools.
Felder is primarily concerned with yeshivas, or Jewish religious schools, which have come under fire in recent years for inadequate secular schooling. In 2015, a coalition of concerned yeshiva alumni, former teachers and parents sent a letter to the New York City Department of Education requesting that the agency investigate 39 yeshiva schools in Brooklyn and Queens, which they said were not properly educating its students in subjects like English, math and science. The city launched an investigation, but has faced criticism for missing deadlines to release a report on the probe into the 39 yeshiva schools.
In response to the lack of progress from the city, Young Advocates for a Fair Education, an advocacy organization dedicated to introducing secular education to yeshiva schools, released its own report. The report found that girls receive a better secular education than boys, in part because boys are expected to become rabbis and their education emphasizes religious studies. The ultra-Orthodox yeshivas barely teach English, and end secular studies at age 13, focusing solely on Jewish studies. Yeshivas also receive significant state and local funding.
Felder’s advocacy on yeshivas is largely on behalf of his Jewish constituents. He has previously called for loosening requirements on yeshivas, and now has the leverage to press his cause. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie called out Felder on Friday, saying that although the budget was “99.9 percent” done, the budget “is being held up by an unrelated non-budgetary demand in the State Senate.” Felder shot back that the Assembly Democrats were using him as a scapegoat.
“I’m not Moses. I’m not Jesus. I don’t have that kind of power,” Felder told reporters.
By chance, state lawmakers are scrambling to pass the budget before Friday evening, because the Jewish holiday of Passover begins at sundown. Felder, an Orthodox Jew who seemingly would have the highest stake in wrapping up negotiations quickly, has apparently become the biggest obstacle to meeting that deadline.
Even if Felder loses this battle, he doesn’t lose his political clout. Mainline Democrats and the IDC have agreed to a reunification deal backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which would be triggered by Democrats retaining two vacant seats in the April 24 special election. If the deal holds, the state Senate will be comprised of 31 Republicans, 31 unified Democrats, and one Simcha Felder. Lawmakers on both sides will be looking to swing his vote – and the kerfuffle over yeshivas in state budget negotiations may be the first front in that war.
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