ALBANY, N.Y. (CNS) — Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany said opponents of a tax credit measure to support parental choice in education is being falsely characterized as a “scheme to benefit the rich.”
“Here are the facts: The popular teachers union talking point that the Education Tax Credit is a ‘scheme’ to benefit the rich is a falsehood,” the bishop wrote in an op-ed piece published May 28 in the Times Union newspaper.
“The investment tax credit is available to anyone who makes a donation to public education or to scholarship-making organizations. It is not for millionaires; it is for schoolchildren,” he said.
The measure, now called the Parental Choice in Education Act, would provide tax breaks to people or corporations who donate to nonprofit education foundations. That can include private schools, public schools, or scholarship-making organizations.
The bill also includes a $500 tuition tax credit for families making less than $60,000 a year, and a $200 tax credit for public school teachers for their out-of-pocket expenses for classroom supplies.
It has the support of the state’s Catholic bishops, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican.
New York State United Teachers, a federation of more than 1,200 local unions, is leading the opposition to the bill, running ads that claim Cuomo is giving millions of dollars to private schools while saying the state doesn’t have money for public schools.
“In the recently enacted state budget, state aid to education increased by $1.4 billion, bringing it to $23.5 billion. And this is before federal aid and local property taxes,” Bishop Scharfenberger wrote.
“The grand total of education spending in our state is $58 billion per year, of which religious and independent schools receive about 1 percent. Of that $58 billion, public school teachers receive about 80 percent of it in salary and benefits,” he said.
The bishop said no one argues that teachers in the state should not be well compensated and he added that overall, Cuomo’s $150 million education tax credit proposal is a modest program that allows parents a choice in where they send their children to school.
In January, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan said the tax credit measure, supported by a majority in both houses of the state Legislature, “would help working and poor families regardless of where their children attend school.”
He said its passage was critical “for the future countless children across this state. Expanding educational opportunities is a clear matter of social justice.”
In May, Cuomo stopped in to St. Jude’s Catholic Church in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn as part of a church tour to rally support for the Parental Choice in Education Act.
“Your choice in education is everything,” Cuomo told the congregation before Mass May 17. “The best thing you can do is get your children an education.”
While the state is doing a lot to improve public schools, the governor explained that some people choose to send their children to a religious school.
“We want you to have the ability to choose,” he said.
But he also pointed out that it’s not a choice if parents don’t have the money to afford a private or religious school.
Cuomo, who attended Catholic grade and high schools and Jesuit-run Fordham University, said he chose to send his three daughters to public schools.
“There is no right or wrong here,” he said. “It should be your choice.”
Cuomo said he didn’t think it was fair that people who choose to send their children to private schools also are taxed for public schools that they do not use.
“We have a very good chance of passing this bill,” said Cuomo.
Earlier in the week, Cuomo attended a rally in Hempstead with Cardinal Dolan and numerous parents, students and elected officials to call on the Legislature to pass the bill this session.
Cardinal Dolan told the gathering: “This is not just a Catholic issue — it is an issue for every parochial, private or nonpublic school that is devoted to the success of their students.
“Our students are our greatest treasure and the Parental Choice in Education Act is all about supporting them no matter where they go to school,” he said. “We need the Legislature to stand with us on this issue, just as Governor Cuomo has, in order to ensure that it becomes law and we can support all schools this year.”
About 400,000 students, or approximately 15 percent of all students in the state, attend nonpublic schools, providing an educational alternative in virtually every corner of the state. There are currently 178 failing public schools in New York State, many of which have been failing for 10 years or more.
Contributing to this story was Ed Wilkinson, editor of The Tablet, newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn.