At the MCPEARL Biennial Meeting on April 17, Jody Siegle told members how a powerful lobby pushed through the N.Y. State legislature a special education bill to segregate children on a religious basis and grant unlimited funds for religious schools.
Siegle is the Executive Director of the Monroe County School Boards Association and a MCPEARL board member.
On the last day of the 2012 session, without public notice or discussion, legislators passed a bill requiring each public school district to “take into account any possible educational impact differences between the school environment and family background may have on the child’s ability to receive a free appropriate public education.”
If parents thought their child would learn better at a private school, they could sue the district for private-school tuition. The district, but not the parents, must provide documents to support its opinion. The bill put the burden of proof on the district.
The measure placed no limit on the amount of money the school district would have to pay the private schools.
Siegle said no study has shown that children learn better in a culturally or religiously segregated environment. She felt sure that if anyone had done such a study, the bill’s supporters would have made use of it.
The legislation contradicted federal policy, expressed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which favors education for children with special needs in the least restrictive environment.
The bill does not use the word religion. When Siegle first read it, she thought rich parents from rich school districts wanted to put their children into luxurious private schools.
However, she brought to the meeting copies of a newspaper article that credited the Jewish ultra-orthodox organization Agudath Israel for the coup. The story came from Hamodia, a newspaper that bills itself The Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry.
The article said, “‘This is something I have been dreaming of since the day I got into the Agudah. This is what I wanted. This was the goal,”’ Mrs. Leah Steinberg, director of Agudath Israel’s Special Education Affairs for the past 12 years told Hamodia.”
“Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn), whose help Agudath Israel said was indispensable in getting the bill passed, told Hamodia…that she was proudest of this law.”
“One member of Agudath Israel who was involved in every aspect of the law said that Ms. Weinstein had gradually taken a deep personal interest in helping pass the bill.…she actually helped draft the language with ideas how to do it and what to do.”
After the bill passed, the New York State Catholic Conference came out in favor of it.
Siegle singled out for praise Monroe County Assemblyman Stephen Hawley, a former school board member, who recognized the intolerable burden the bill would place on school districts and voted against it.
Siegle felt that the hurry of the last day did not excuse all those legislators who voted for the bill without reading it.
As soon as the news got out, the public education community and other good-government groups raised an outcry, and the governor vetoed the bill. In his veto message, he listed many of the civic groups who objected to the bill.
Siegle said she asked Senator John Flanagan, who had sponsored the bill in the Senate, whether he would back a similar bill. Flanagan said he would not support that bill.
No legislator has tried to override the governor’s veto.