ALBANY, N.Y. — New York’s Catholic bishops, led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, are calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to “keep his word” and enact an education investment tax-credit bill that will help parents afford to send their children to Catholic and private schools.
Cuomo, a Democrat and son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, previously said he supported the bill, which he called “a no-brainer.” Majorities in both chambers of the New York Legislature are also reportedly on board, but the measure was dropped when lawmakers passed the state budget on April 1.
The Education Investment Tax Credit 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 up at around $300 million.
Of the proposed $300 million in tax credits, at least half would be set aside to increase donations to public schools and their teachers. Public-school teachers would also be reimbursed up to $100 for their out-of-pocket expenses for classroom supplies. Advocates said the tax credit would also increase donations for teacher-selected classroom projects and to nonprofits that provide art, music, history, athletics and other classroom instruction.
The state’s bishops said Cuomo, a product of Catholic schools, and other legislative leaders in Albany promised them that the tax credit would be enacted through the budget process. Frustrated with Albany’s notorious backroom politics, Cardinal Dolan, his fellow bishops and a coalition of activists and educators have launched a public campaign that features rallies, television commercials and print ads to lobby the governor and state legislators to pass the bill before the legislative session ends on June 19.
In a new 30-second TV spot, Cardinal Dolan, surrounded by children wearing Catholic-school uniforms, said Cuomo assured the bishops that he would fight for “an innovative plan” to help students in Catholic and private independent schools.
“But when the state budget was done, we were left out,” Cardinal Dolan said, adding that “now’s the time to get it done.”
“There is still an opportunity here. As long as the governor continues to express publicly his support for it, and he has, this could get done,” said James Cultrara, the director of education for the New York State Catholic Conference.
Cultrara told the Register he did not know why the tax credit was not included in the state budget. He said Cuomo’s stated support in the weeks leading up to April 1 gave the bishops “great encouragement” for its enactment.
“We can’t say he’s reneged on a commitment because he still has an opportunity to enact it,” Cultrara said.
Cuomo’s office did not return a message seeking comment. His only public statements on the education tax credit since April were in comments he made last month to the New York Post, where he claimed that he did not withdraw his support from the bill.
“I went to parochial schools, and I get it. I support the concept of the tax credit,” Cuomo told the Post. “It’s still kicking around, but there isn’t a three-way agreement yet.”
When the budget passed with no education tax credit included, Cardinal Dolan said he was “frustrated, disappointed and angry” in a letter he wrote to parents and educators. He said Cuomo had called the bishops’ support of the bill, which could help low-income families afford a quality education, “refreshing and uplifting,” but the cardinal added that nobody had explained to him why the promised credit never went through.
“Well, with some chagrin, I have to admit that a ‘done deal’ in Albany apparently does not mean what you and I think it means — that something will actually get done,” Cardinal Dolan wrote.
Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., pinned the blame directly on Cuomo when he addressed a pro-education tax credit rally in downtown Buffalo on May 28. Bishop Malone said Cuomo looked the bishops “in the eye” during a March 18 private meeting in Albany and assured them that the bill would be passed in the budget process.
“The promise was made right there and right then, and I heard it with my own ears,” said Bishop Malone, who accused the governor of “kicking Catholic-school children to the curb” and treating Catholic-school parents like “second-class citizens.”
“It’s time for the governor to show leadership on this issue,” Bishop Malone said.
Despite the public support voiced by Cuomo and a majority of state lawmakers, this is an election year in New York state, and Cuomo, who is considered a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, is running for re-election.
Key players in New York state politics — 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.
On March 25, less than a week before the state budget’s passage, the New York State United Teachers, an umbrella organization of local teachers’ unions, held a press conference in Albany to urge Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to reject the tax credit in their budget negotiations with the state Senate leadership. Representatives from the New York Civil Liberties Union, the state Schools Boards Association and the Council of School Superintendents also attended the press conference.
Cultrara downplayed the teachers unions’ opposition, suggesting that there is a “growing realization” that the tax-credit bill, as structured, would also benefit public schools.
“It’s not the offensive type of measure that the teachers have traditionally opposed,” Cultrara said.
The New York Catholic bishops lobbied for the tax-credit bill to help shore up the state’s struggling Catholic schools. At least 300 Catholic schools in New York have closed in the last 15 years due to declining enrollment and parents’ difficulty paying tuition. Another 15 schools in the state will shutter their doors this month, Cultrara said
“Waiting another year only puts additional stress on the state budget,” Cultrara said. “Shifting those students into the public-school system will only cost taxpayers that much more.”
The Case for Helping Catholic Schools
A recent report from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice makes the case that private-school choice programs, such as vouchers and scholarship tax credits, can stem the tide of private-school closures and prevent the emerging charter-school sector from squeezing Catholic and private counterparts out of the market.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 27 states, including Washington D.C., provide some form of public assistance for parents eager to place their children in private schools.
In his April 8 letter to parents, Cardinal Dolan estimated that Catholic and other non-public schools in New York state save taxpayers more than $9 billion each year.
“What would our counties, cities and the state do if those schools disappeared?” Cardinal Dolan asked.
“If all the Catholic schools were to go away, about 200,000 students statewide would have to be absorbed into the public schools. Estimating that about $19,000 is spent educating each student, that is a lot of taxpayer money,” said Robert Bellafiore, a spokesman for the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, a nonprofit that is helping lobby for the tax credit’s passage.
Bellafiore told the Register that the tax credit would have “a huge impact” by enabling parents in urban neighborhoods with struggling public schools to send their children to Catholic and private schools with proven track records of preparing students for college. He said it would be smart politics for Cuomo to throw his full support behind the bill and assure its passage.
“Catholics are not okay with being marginalized,” Bellafiore said, adding that Cuomo’s unfavorable ratings among Catholic voters in New York have increased from 17% in April 2011 to 47% in April 2014, according to Siena College Research Institute polling data.
Cuomo’s Catholic Support Declines
The same data, Bellafiore said, shows that Cuomo’s favorable ratings among Catholics have dropped in response to the governor’s support last year for widening access to abortion and his statements in January that pro-life “extremists” have “no place in the state of New York.” In 2011, Cuomo clashed with the state’s Catholic bishops in his push to legalize same-sex “marriage,” which the state Legislature approved that June.
“Nationally, as you know, Catholics are a critically important vote,” Bellafiore said. “Some 25% of the national vote is Catholic.”
That polling data would seem to provide a small opening for Cuomo’s opponent, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, a pro-life Catholic and former program director of Sirius Satellite Radio’s Catholic Channel. Astorino called on Cuomo to “stop playing politics” and pass the Education Investment Tax Credit bill.
“It would help thousands of low-income students get a solid education, and it would encourage more and more New Yorkers to contribute toward that effort,” Astorino said in prepared remarks posted on a page of his campaign website containing an online petition that calls on Cuomo “to make this bill a priority and to pass it before June is out.”
Cultrara said he had “no doubt” that the Catholic and religious independent school community in New York state will express their frustrations in the voting booths this year, should state lawmakers not enact the tax-credit bill.
“It will send the message to lawmakers as they convene the 2015 legislative session that our parents have waited long enough for support,” Cultrara said. “They are shouldering the duel burden of paying taxes to support the public schools as well as the tuition of supporting the education of their own children.
“The parents needed that assistance 10 years ago,” Cultrara added. “They needed it yesterday. They’re not likely to be very patient that much longer.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.