School choice advocates in New York are making a last-minute push to get an education tax credit bill passed in the final eight days of the state assembly's legislative session.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, with the Archdiocese of New York, is spearheading a campaign to move the bill out of the assembly and into law. The legislation would create a tax credit for donations made to schools and scholarship programs. Although opposed by the state teachers' union, tax credits are seen as a potential lifeline to struggling Roman Catholic schools.
Reflecting a trend seen across most of the country, the number of Catholic schools in New York has shrunk from around 800 to about 500 over the last 15 years, according to Jim Cultrara of the New York State Catholic Conference.
"It's not difficult to understand why," Cultrara said. "We have in New York, and across the country, an enormously unlevel playing field where the public sector, including charters, is supported by tax dollars."
Cultrara said Catholic school families are essentially asked to pay for education twice: as taxpayers funding public schools and as tuition-payers at private schools.
With the explosion of charter schools over the last several years, Catholic schools are finding it more difficult to compete with the public sector.
The campaign, which includes TV and print advertisements as well as rallies and email blasts, also has the support from several other religious groups, such as the Jewish, Islamic, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox-affiliated organizations and schools.
However, opponents are concerned that the tax credit could harm public schools.
"This is a voucher-like program that drains public dollars into private and Catholic schools," said Carl Korn, a spokesman for the New York State United Teachers who's concerned that inequities between public and private schools in donations will be exacerbated by the tax-credit program. Korn said that private schools are more likely to attract big donations from businesses and wealthy school-choice advocates.
"Whereas the New Yorker who sends their kids to a public school is more likely to donate $25 to a sports booster club," he said.
The total tax credit would be capped at $150 million starting in 2015 and then increase to $300 million by 2017. Half of the annual cap amount would be reserved for public education entities, school improvement organizations, and local education funds. The other half is for donations to educational scholarship organizations which students attending private schools can use.
The legislation was knocked off track in early April when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did not include the tax credit in the state's budget. The New York Assembly's legislative session ends June 19.