ALBANY – The leader of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo said Tuesday that a tax credit bill pending before state lawmakers would help him prevent the kind of school closings he ordered in January.
Bishop Richard J. Malone and other Catholic leaders were at the Capitol lobbying in support of an education tax credit measure that eventually would provide scholarship aid for students attending private or Catholic schools.
“We’d be able to help parents who would love to send their kid to a Catholic school or another nonpublic school to have some assistance with tuition,” Malone said in an interview at the Capitol. “I’m sure if this thing comes into law, there will be a much better chance that we won’t have to face those kinds of dramatic closures in the future.”
In January, Malone ordered the closings of 10 of the diocese’s 45 schools, in part because of changing demographics of the parishes in the region, as well as “prohibitive” tuition levels for some parents.
Gone from the legislative push is an old plan to give vouchers to parents of children in private schools.
This legislation, backed for the last three years in the Senate and with a growing number of sponsors in the Assembly, would give a state tax credit – up to $1 million – to individuals and entities that donate to one of the many nonprofit organizations set up to provide scholarships for religious and other private schools.
The donated money could not go directly to the schools or parents, though a separate provision of the bill would allow people to get a tax break for making donations to a public school or school district.
In three years, the measure would cost the state $300 million in tax credits, an amount that backers say could be used for everything from student scholarships to infrastructure improvements at public or private schools. There is also a provision giving tax credits – up to $100 – to public school teachers who buy classroom supplies with their own money.
Timing in Albany is everything, and the Catholic leaders and others in their group came Tuesday as state leaders are working on final provisions for the 2014 state budget for the fiscal year beginning April 1. The group is trying to persuade lawmakers to include the tax credit provision in the budget; if it’s not, the issue, given its price tag, is all but dead this year.
“This is a bill that’s bringing people together,” said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and spiritual leader of the state’s Catholics, who added that the measure has growing support of lawmakers and unions. Most of the unions cited represent law enforcement workers.
Critics, though, say the plan is a backdoor voucher system. The state’s largest teachers union – New York State United Teachers – has been the biggest opponent of the measure, which now has nearly 100 co-sponsors in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, though many are Republicans.
NYSUT raises questions about who monitors the nonprofit groups that would accept donations eligible for the tax credits to ensure that the system is not abused by allowing a donor to direct where his or her contribution ends up, such as an expensive private school attended by their own children.
Backers say there are protections in the bill, such as not being able to earmark a donation to a specific child’s education and requiring nonprofit groups accepting donations to have at least three private schools in their portfolio to which funds are being given.
“Public schools serve more than 90 percent of the state’s children, and public schools have been devastated by budget cuts,” said Carl Korn, a NYSUT spokesman who said that nearly 70 percent of schools this year are getting less state aid than five years ago.
“So at the time that public schools are devastated by budget cuts,” Korn said, “it’s wrong to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget to give tax credits to wealthy benefactors to donors of religious and private schools.”
After meeting with the bishops, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said he has questions about such a large tax credit being put into the 2014 budget. The cost estimates range between $250 million and $300 million – half for private school efforts and half for public schools.
“They’re looking for, in effect, $125 million from the fund, and the reality is they’re forcing $250 million in expenditures in order to achieve that,” Silver said of the total funding.
He said the Assembly supports putting extra money in the 2014 budget for items such as direct “attendance” aid for religious schools and letting nonpublic schools be eligible to participate in a $2 billion school borrowing proposal for infrastructure and other needs.
Dolan said that Silver was “very frank” with his group in their private meeting and that the Assembly speaker “seemed to be wrestling” with the issue.
“We hoped we encouraged him to say, ‘Look, wait a minute. It’s all the people’s money.’ We entrust it to the state to educate our kids,” Dolan said. “We hope they would not see it as state money, but as people’s money to be used for the education of their kids, and this is only going to help do that better.”
Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Catherine T. Nolan, D-Queens, said there are some constitutional concerns about state support of religious institutions.
“But we’re certainly going to take a look at it,” said Nolan, who attended a Catholic grammar school in Queens.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also met with the group Tuesday. Cuomo’s likely Republican opponent in the fall election, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, talked much about his Catholic roots Tuesday to a separate religious group.
Dolan expressed confidence that Cuomo is behind the tax credit effort. He said his optimism and confidence increased after he and the bishops met with the governor.