The cheers Wednesday morning in First Niagara Center were louder and heartier than the Buffalo Sabres have been able to elicit from fans this season.
And they were all for a proposed state tax credit, instead of an overtime thriller.
About 10,000 students, most of them from area Catholic schools, put instruction aside for a few hours to rally in support of state legislation that could help make private-school education more affordable.
Elementary and high school students were bused from Catholic schools across Western New York for the “Invest in Education Tax Credit Rally,” which featured speakers such as Bishop Richard J. Malone; State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane; and former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly (shown in a video) advocating a bill that would give donors a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their private contributions to scholarship funds and public schools.
Last year, the State Senate passed a tax credit proposal, which has support from an eclectic alliance that includes Catholic bishops, the Lutheran Schools Association, Jewish groups and school choice proponents. But a similar bill introduced in the Assembly in January was stuck in the Ways and Means Committee and is unlikely to be considered again until the 2014 state budget talks. The bill has support from several members of the Western New York delegation, including Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, both of whom attended the rally.
Last year, nearly 17,000 children attended 67 Catholic elementary and high schools, and without those schools public school classrooms would be overflowing with students and property taxes would skyrocket, said Schimminger.
“We can prevent that by keeping Catholic school education viable and affordable,” he said. “And we can do the same for our Jewish schools and Lutheran schools and all the rest, and we can protect our public schools at the same time.”
But opponents of the proposed legislation said it was a veiled effort to subsidize private schools with taxpayer dollars and would siphon money from public education.
“Legislation like this diverts already scarce resources from public schools, which serve more than 90 percent of students,” said Carl Korn, spokesman for the New York State United Teachers, which represents 600,000 people who work in education.
The latest state budget increases aid to public schools, but funding is still lower than it was five years ago, he said.
“We respect the decision of parents to send their children to private and parochial schools, but taxpayers should not subsidize that choice,” he said.
The bill would allow up to $150 million in tax credits to be awarded annually for donations to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships, and $150 million in credits for donations to public school districts.
If the bill became law, it would spur contributions to scholarship organizations such as the BISON Fund, which provides scholarships for more than 1,800 students, many of whom attend Catholic elementary schools across Western New York, according to Malone.
The Diocese of Buffalo figures that the tax credits would substantially increase the number of families who could afford to enroll in Catholic schools.
Other local private schools also are on board with the measure. In addition to the more than 50 Catholic schools represented in the arena at Wednesday’s rally, there were two Jewish schools, two Islamic schools, three Christian schools and the nonsectarian Aurora Waldorf School.
In many of the Catholic schools, the field trip was part of a lesson about the legislative process and participation in government, said Carol A. Kostyniak, secretary for Catholic education in the Buffalo diocese.
“Every field trip should be educational. We didn’t want it to be just a show-up, rah-rah and go home,” said Kostiniak. “We’re hoping the schools in the English-language arts classes will follow up with letters to their legislators and to the governor.”