Archdiocese Advocates for Parental Choice in Education Act

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Advocates of the Parental Choice in Education Act are ramping up efforts across the archdiocese and beyond to rally the New York State Assembly to vote in favor of the bill.

At the invitation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Cardinal Dolan and several other New York State bishops and representatives from the state’s eight dioceses met with members of the New York State Senate and Assembly at the New York State Executive Mansion in Albany June 1.

The act would provide a $500 tuition tax credit for families making $60,000 per year or less who send their children to a religious or independent school. It also provides an education investment tax credit to individuals and corporations who donate to public schools and scholarship-making organizations, and a $200 personal tax credit for public school teachers for their out of pocket classroom expenses.

It provides for $150 million in education tax credits annually, and would support and protect alternative school options for parents and students across the state.

Specifically, it would provide tax credits to low-income families who send their children to non-public schools; scholarships for low- and middle-income students to attend either a public school outside their district or a non-public school; incentives to public schools for enhanced educational programming; and tax credits to public school teachers to purchase supplies.

“Keeping our Catholic schools open and affordable is a colossal challenge for one simple reason—our schools operate on an extremely un-level playing field,” Cardinal Dolan has said. “Public schools are completely and endlessly funded by taxpayer dollars while our schools operate largely on charity, good will, and great sacrifice—particularly the sacrifice of parents who struggle to pay tuition to send their children to our schools. Lawmakers created and perpetuate this un-level playing field, and only they can level it.”

The bill, continued the cardinal, has the broad support of various faith traditions, labor unions, businesses and community organizations, “because it makes so much sense.”

“We are grateful to Governor Cuomo and the legislators who support parental choice and are fighting for it, but if they return home from Albany this month without enacting education tax credits, principals, pastors and, especially, our parents will be very upset. We’ve had a lot of false hope in the past. Now is the time for them to put their money where their mouth is.”

James D. Cultrara, director for education at the New York State Catholic Conference, said that at the core of the issue is the education of children.

“Sadly, there are too many children in schools that are not the right fit for them, for a variety of reasons,” he said.

Parents who bring children into the world have the right and responsibility to provide them with the most appropriate education, he said. “When families don’t have the means to exercise a choice, that’s a real infringement on that right and responsibility,” he said.

“This bill is about ensuring that families have access to schools of their choosing.”

The bill is also about saving money for taxpayers, Cultrara said. “Countless Catholic schools have been forced to close. That adds a tremendous burden to taxpayers. For every child that is not educated in a religious or independent school, taxpayers are then having to pay approximately $20,000 for that child to be educated in the public school.”

That, he said, is the average per pupil cost in public school in this state.

Those who oppose the legislation, Cultrara continued, argue that it will take money away from public schools. “What they fail to acknowledge is that the legislation actually increases support for public schools,” he said. While it does give incentives for donors to contribute to scholarship funds—therefore, to aid families in sending their kids to private schools—it also encourages the same donors to make contributions to public schools, he said.

Additionally, the legislation provides teachers with a tax credit for their out of pocket expenses for classroom supplies and materials, Cultrara said.

Following the lead of Cardinal Dolan, who is publicly advocating for the measure, side by side with Gov. Cuomo and key legislators, continued Cultrara, “parents, teachers, principals, supporters of Catholic schools, should make their voice heard to legislators.”

Any easy way to do so, he said, is to access the home page of the NYSCC, www.nyscatholic.org. There they will find a link to an action alert that will automatically generate an e-mail to their legislators. “Legislators need to realize that parents are fed up with being neglected and left out of the state budget,” Cultrara said. He noted that 99 percent of all funding for education in New York State goes to support children in public schools, even though 15 percent of the children are actually in religious and independent schools. “These families are getting no help, and that help is long overdue.”

By going to the website, they can let their legislators know that they expect to be represented and receive their fair share of help, he added.

There is a balance to strike, Cultrara concluded, “a balance where no one has to lose, that all schools and all children and all families can be supported, without pitting one group against another. And this legislation is designed to strike that balance.”

Dr. Timothy J. McNiff, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, has also been on the front lines as an advocate. Among other efforts, he joined a group of Catholic superintendents in Albany May 27 to support the cause. In an Op/Ed published in the May 28 issue of CNY, Dr. McNiff said, “We can win this, but only if you speak up on behalf of the children and families we seek to serve.”

He directed supporters to sign onto www.investined.org. “Simply typing in your street address and zip code, the website identifies your state legislator and gives you a sample email which you can customize, if you like. Then simply press ‘Submit Email’ and you’re done.”

“Our Catholic school system serves nearly 70,000 students in over 200 schools in New York,” Dr. McNiff continued. “These schools are special places where students receive what many children do not: a faith-based education centered on building character and virtue. Students who attend our Catholic schools enjoy smaller class sizes and a family atmosphere where the principal knows every child’s name. Moreover, 98 percent of seniors graduate with diplomas and go on to college.”

Such support, Dr. McNiff said, “will help Catholic education remain a vibrant force for our families, our communities and our state for years to come.”

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