New York Governor’s Educational Gambit

Andrew Cuomo Jeopardized Initiative He Publicly Endorsed

ALBANY, N.Y. — For the second consecutive year, an education tax-credit bill that would help parents afford to send their children to Catholic and private schools was left out of New York state’s budget.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he supported the measure, and majorities in both chambers of the state legislature were reportedly on board, but Cuomo’s decision to tie the education tax credit with a state version of the Dream Act — which would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for college financial aid — torpedoed the bill’s chances of becoming law.

“That link has turned out to be disastrous,” said Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference. “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, offer 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 have created 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-school system.

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 — were 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.”

Still, the teachers’ unions, which include New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers, pushed back against Cuomo’s education agenda, which includes proposals to overhaul the teacher-evaluation system and create more charter schools. The teachers’ unions organized protests, launched public-information campaigns and lobbied state lawmakers. The teachers’ coordinated campaign seemed to work. 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.

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 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 continued.

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.

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.

Unfortunately, this year’s April 1 deadline passed without the tax credit in the state budget.

Poust said, “Obviously, the bishops are clearly disappointed, but we’re not giving up at the same time.”

Brian Fraga writes from

Fall River, Massachusetts.