ALBANY, N.Y. — For the second consecutive year, it appears that an education tax credit bill that would help parents afford to send their children to Catholic and private schools will be left out of New York state’s budget.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he supports the measure, and majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly are reportedly on board, but Cuomo’s decision to tie the education tax credit with a state version of the Dream Act — would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for college financial aid — may have torpedoed the bill’s chances of becoming law.
“To link the education tax credit, which has support in both houses, to a politically non-viable bill at this time, we think that was the knife that sort of slayed the bill if that ends up being the case. That link has turned out to be disastrous,” said Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference.
Poust told the Register that the bishops are working with state legislators and the governor’s office to try to get all sides back to the bargaining table and save the education tax credit. Poust described the measure as a “matter of social justice.”
“Our kids can’t wait another year,” Poust said. “The bottom line is we have kids in our inner cities who are trapped in failing public schools, even failing charter schools. Catholic schools, everyone knows, offers kids in the inner city the best hope for not only graduating from high school, but going on to college.”
The education tax credit bill would create a new state tax credit for individuals and corporations that donate money to public schools or to nonprofit scholarship organizations that assist middle-class and low-income families in sending their children to private and religious schools. Yearly donations would be capped at $100 million, with the tax credits evenly split between private schools and public schools or organizations that benefit the public schools system.
“While tax law can be complicated, the bottom line is quite simple. The Education Tax Credit will help all children by encouraging increased charitable donations to generate more private scholarships for tuition-paying families and additional resources to our public schools. It’s a win-win for all families, regardless of where their children attend school,” the New York state Catholic bishops said in a joint statement that will be distributed at all Palm Sunday Masses throughout the Empire State.
Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany told the Register that the education tax credit would help many parents who struggle to send their children to Catholic schools.
“It definitely would bring relief to those parents who in some cases are in income brackets where the tuition they pay amounts to 20% of their total income,” Bishop Scharfenberger said. “But people are willing to make that sacrifice because they believe in Catholic education.”
The tax credit would also help shore up the state’s struggling Catholic schools, at least 300 of which have closed in the last 15 years due to declining enrollment and parents’ difficulty paying tuition. The Diocese of Rochester recently announced it will close an elementary school, while the Diocese of Albany said Bishop Maginn High School, the only diocesan Catholic high school in the city of Albany, will remain open but relocated to a smaller location.
Poust said Catholic schools in New York save taxpayers $8 billion a year by privately educating children. And in a March 22 op-ed he wrote for the New York Post, Cuomo — himself a product of Catholic education — said the public cost of absorbing students from closed parochial and private schools “increases the burden on a struggling public school system without doing anything to improve it.”
Despite the arguments that the tax credit would ultimately benefit public schools and taxpayers, key players in New York state politics — specifically the influential teachers’ unions — are adamantly against the education tax credit, which they see as a “backroom voucher proposal” that would undermine funding for public schools.
“There is a good deal of misinformation about the nature of this education tax credit,” Bishop Scharfenberger said. “It is not a voucher. It involves no transfer of public money into private hands.”
Teacher Union Pushback
Still, the teachers’ unions, which include New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers, have pushed back against Cuomo’s education agenda, which includes proposals to overhaul the teacher evaluation system and create more charter schools. The teachers’ unions have organized protests, launched public information campaigns and lobbied state lawmakers.
The teachers’ coordinated campaign seems to have worked. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that less than a third of the state’s registered voters approve of Cuomo’s handling of education. The same poll said 55% of voters trust the teachers’ unions more than the governor to improve education.
“The teachers’ unions opposition is always a factor,” Poust said. “But we have a ton of support from Democrats and Republicans in both houses. The Senate has already passed a tax credit bill this session and we know it would pass in the Assembly if there was a floor vote.”
However, because Cuomo tied passage of the education tax credit to the Dream Act, which the New York bishops also support, a majority of lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state Senate balked.
While Senate Republican leaders chafed at the Dream Act, some Democrats in the Assembly also expressed misgivings about the education tax credit. A spokesman for Carl Heastie, the Assembly speaker, told The New York Times that the tax credit did not “have sufficient support” in the Assembly, which prompted Cuomo to drop the measure as budget negotiations continue.
Poust said the education tax credit had “dozens of Democratic sponsors” in the Assembly, adding that the measure had the support of many black and Latino lawmakers even though legislators from white suburban districts, targeted by teachers’ unions, backed off.
Replay of 2014?
Cuomo’s decision to drop the tax credit resembles a replay of last year’s state budget negotiations, when the governor said he supported the bill and called it a “no-brainer.” But when lawmakers passed the budget on April 1, 2014, the tax credit was dropped, angering the bishops.
“Last year, the bishops felt they had a commitment from the governor to get this done,” Poust said.
With another April 1 deadline approaching for the new state budget, the bishops are actively lobbying to salvage the tax credit.
“It doesn’t look good for the budget and frankly the budget is really our best hope,” Poust said. “It’s easier to do a controversial bill as the part of the budget process, where millions of things go into it and people have to make trades.
“We think it belongs in the budget,” Poust added. “It’s fiscal and tax policy.”
A spokeswoman for Cuomo said the Dream Act and education tax credit could still pass in the regular legislative session if not in the budget. Bishop Scharfenberger said the governor “has a great deal” of influence to determine what stays on the table during budget negotiations.
“Obviously, the positions of local politicians also count, so we’re encouraging pastors to encourage their faithful to be in touch with their local representatives and express their feelings on this matter,” Bishop Scharfenberger said.
Despite having counted on Cuomo to shepherd the education tax credit through budget talks, Poust said the New York State Catholic Conference still has hope that measure can be salvaged.
“Obviously the bishops are clearly disappointed, but we’re not giving up at the same time,” Poust said. “Until that bridge is passed, we’re going to fight to get it back in.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.