Archbishop Dolan made a strong appeal to legislators at a state budget hearing for programs to give all parents a meaningful choice in where their children go to school.
The archbishop, speaking about the crisis in Catholic schools, said that of all of the education priorities of the Church in New York State, “it is in the area of parental choice that we see the gravest injustice perpetrated on families.”
He said the injustice extends not just to Catholic school families, but also to families with children in troubled public schools and those who struggle to send their children to yeshivas and other independent schools.
“There are thousands of children trapped in chronically low-performing government schools—schools that have been proven to be ineffective,” Archbishop Dolan said Feb. 15 at the joint legislative hearing on school funding in Albany.
“The cost to the taxpayer and society in general is exorbitant,” he said. “The cost to the family, in the form of shattered hopes and dreams and lost human potential is far deeper and more painful.”
The archbishop urged lawmakers to enact “a scholarship or education tax credit program that will provide meaningful assistance” to enable parents to choose the most suitable schools.
“All I’m asking is that, in justice, in your moves to promote education, please let it be for all our kids,” he said.
Archbishop Dolan also called on legislators to fully reimburse the Catholic schools for mandated services and comprehensive attendance reporting as required by law, and he asked that Catholic and other independent schools be exempt from the MTA payroll tax, as public schools are.
The archbishop spoke Feb. 15 at a public hearing on elementary and secondary education funding. He was joined by James D. Cultrara, director of education for the New York State Catholic Conference.
Cathleen P. Black, chancellor of New York City public schools, and David M. Steiner, state commissioner of education, were among the other speakers at the lengthy session held in the Legislative Office Building in the state Capitol complex.
In calling for the state to reimburse the schools for mandated services, the archbishop noted that Gov. Cuomo has proposed an 8 percent cut in that funding, on top of cuts from previous years. He also called on the state to pay the approximately $270 million owed to the Catholic schools since 2003 for these services.
“As a result of the state’s delinquency, our schools have been forced to raise tuition to fill the gap,” he said. “Tragically, others have had to close because our families cannot bear the burden.”
The archbishop said the blame for the growing debt falls squarely on the State Education Department, which years ago made an error in calculating the amount owed to schools, and then changed the reimbursement formula to cover less than the full costs incurred by the schools.
He asked the legislators to call on the education department to correct its error and revert to using the original agreed-upon formula and to immediately provide an official accounting of the amount owed. He also urged that sufficient funds be appropriated for the services for the coming fiscal year.
“We recognize that the current fiscal situation will make it difficult for the state to satisfy completely its legal obligation,” the archbishop said. “Nonetheless, it is imperative that you begin to do so.”
Addressing the MTA payroll tax, he said it costs independent schools $7 million per year. He thanked members of the Legislature, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senators Dean Skelos, Andrew J. Lanza and Martin Golden for leading efforts to “remedy this injustice.”
Answering questions from legislators after his presentation, the archbishop said that for every Catholic school that closes, an estimated 50 percent of the students transfer to public schools.
When that happens, the financial burden of educating the child falls on the public school system. In his formal testimony, he said that the 200,000 Catholic school students in the state’s eight dioceses save taxpayers $8 billion a year.
“As the public sector expands, the religious and independent sector is shrinking, and it is taxpaying families who pay the price,” the archbishop said.
Among the other points he made, he said that students 98 percent of students who begin their Catholic school education in kindergarten and stay with it will graduate from high school, and 95 percent of them will go on to college.
Also, he said that classrooms in Catholic schools are a “rainbow” of ethnic groups, races and religions and in some schools most of the students families are below the poverty line.
Catholic schools also spend less than half the amount per pupil than public schools, he said. The archbishop credited the lower operating costs to the fact that Catholic schools do not have a huge supervisory capacity and that teachers’ salaries are less than their counterparts in public schools—something which “we regret” and “wish we could improve.” He also said there’s a lot of parental involvement and volunteer service in the schools, which helps keep costs down.
“All those things combined are what drives that engine,” the archbishop said.