United We Stand

Feb. 23-March 1,2006
United We Stand
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Education Tax Credit Rally Held in Albany

On Feb. 14, close to 5,000 students, teachers, parents and clerical leaders, including Cardinal Edward Egan, converged on East Capitol Park in Albany to support Gov. George Pataki’s proposed tax credit for private and parochial schools.

The demonstrators, including multitudes of parents and schoolchildren — some in Catholic school uniforms, and others wearing yarmulkes — crowded onto the east side of the Capitol building to hear Gov. Pataki and other politicians and to cheer them on.

Syracuse Diocesan Director of Youth Ministry Bob Walters was there as part of the diocese’s delegation which had traveled there by bus. He felt overwhelmed by the large turnout of participants at the rally. “The group was bigger than I expected,” said Walters. “I was also impressed by the diversity of the people there — the gathering included home-schooled and Jewish students. It was a great thing to see all the groups coming together. It gave me hope that the tax credit bill would be passed.”

The NYS Coalition of Independent and Religious Schools and TEACH NYS, a new education advocacy organization, sponsored the rally. The campaign for the approval of education tax credit legislation is being conducted by a consortium of New York State religious and independent schools, known as the NYSD Coalition for Independent and Religious Schools, with the New York State Catholic Conference taking a leading role.

The Coalition is using a number of strategies. They include encouraging parents to join the advocacy network, a rally that was held in Albany on Jan. 24, local meetings and rallies with legislators before April 14, a parental letter and e-mail campaign, a teacher letter and e-mail campaign and a flood of phone calls to Albany on specific dates. The New York State Catholic Conference has been very supportive of the education tax credit movement. Richard Barnes, Executive Director of the New York State Catholic Conference said, “Tax credits for education will provide children with increased opportunity to excel in school and reach their full potential as adults. It is an investment in the future of our state, and one we are very pleased to give our full support.”

The rally comes at a time when momentum for education tax credits in New York State is at an all time high. Gov. Pataki has proposed a $500 education tax credit in his executive budget, which can be used by parents who live in a public school district with at least one school designated as under-performing. This would include every school district in New York City. The credit could be used for a variety of expenses, including tutoring, summer programs and tuition at an independent or religious school. Parents of children in public, independent or religious schools are eligible for the credit. In addition, Sen. Martin Golden (R – Brooklyn) and Assembly member Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) have introduced legislation that would provide a tax credit of up to $3,500 that could be used by parents living in any school district.

Leaders of New York State United Teachers, the state’s major teachers union, as well as the State School Board Association, superintendent’s council and others, have fiercely opposed the concept for tax credit. They believe the tax credit concept is a scheme that would drain $400 million from public schools.

The tax credit is critical for parents with children in Catholic schools in an era of rapidly increasing costs. Tuition costs have forced parents who otherwise might consider a religious or independent school to send their children to an already overcrowded public school. In the last decade, 127 Catholic schools — 38 last year alone — in New York State have closed due to declining enrollment and there is no end in sight. Tax credits make financial sense in that they could prevent a further influx of children into the public school system at a cost of more than $14,000 per student. The average Catholic school tuition statewide is about $3,000 for parish elementary schools and $5,000 for diocesan high schools.

Sherry Screen-Arkhurst, representing Cathedral School in Syracuse, attended the rally. A mother of two Catholic school students, Screen-Arkhurst came to support Catholic schools. “I think it was a wonderful idea to get everyone together to lobby the legislators to get this bill passed,” she said. “I saw that they were responsive to the questions that we asked and they seemed committed.”

Syracuse Diocesan Superintendent of Catholic Schools Michael Colabufo also attended the rally and was impressed by the enthusiasm of those who attended. “It was an exceptional rally,” said Colabufo. “It was great to see the support from our senators and other political leaders. There were many representatives there from downstate.” Colabufo was elated when he was asked to stand on a platform with seven other school superintendents from all over the state, in addition to Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and Cardinal Egan. “Bishop DiMarzio was standing right next to me,” explained Colabufo. “It was quite an awesome experience.”

Colabufo felt that his presence at the rally added to the effort to make the tax credit proposal go through. “I wanted to vocalize and be part of the lobbying effort so parents can have the choice to send their children to non-public schools. It was so good to see people gather together in a peaceful manner,” Colabufo said. “We still need parents to call our legislators through March 31. There is strength in numbers.”

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