On Education

Cheers for Education Tax Credits

Date posted: April 11, 2013


By Jim Cultrara

You’d think that learning about the legislative process or a piece of legislation wouldn’t be much to get excited about  — certainly not reason enough to fill an arena. But that’s exactly what happened yesterday in the First Niagara Center at a rally to support the Education Investment Tax Credit bill. Jay Tokasz, of The Buffalo News, said the cheers were “louder and heartier” than what the Buffalo Sabres could get out of their fans. Really? Louder and heartier than a hockey game? You bet. The place was electric. As one of the many organizers of the event, even I was surprised at the level of excitement. Tim, the stage manager and who has overseen many events, was surprised. I think even Mayor Byron Brown and the seven state legislators in attendance were surprised.

But why? I think it is because the parents, teachers and students — especially the students — knew that this event, this legislation, is about them. It is about their education. It is about their future. And, as they learned yesterday, their representatives in the legislature are fighting to make their future even brighter.  That’s certainly something to cheer about.

Imagine the cheers if Governor Cuomo was there…

Oh, and here’s Cardinal Dolan’s videotaped greeting to the crowd:

Cardinal Timothy Dolan cheers crowd of 10,000 rallying to support the Invest In Ed initiative from InvestInEdNY on Vimeo.

Indiana court upholds school choice program

Date posted: March 27, 2013

By Jim Cultrara

Check out the article on yesterday’s unanimous decision by the Indiana Supreme Court to uphold the nation’s broadest school choice program. The decision bodes well for other states, like New York, which have anti-Catholic “Blaine amendments” disgracing their state constitutions.  I never really thought our Blaine amendment stood in the way of enacting a school choice program here in New York.  Given the clear and sensible rulings by courts across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court, one would have to be pretty inept to craft a bill that didn’t pass constitutional scrutiny. Considering that Indiana’s is a voucher program, New York’s education investment tax credit proposal is a legal no-brainer.

Our Education Investment Tax Credit would generate up to $150 million in scholarships to help parents pay tuition.  The bill would also provide $150 million in additional revenue to public schools.  The balanced approach is why there is overwhelming  support for the bill.  The Senate bill, S.4099, has passed the Senate twice with a very strong bipartisan vote of 55-4.  In the Assembly, nearly 100 of the 150 members in that chamber are co-sponsoring A.1826 — more than what is necessary to pass the bill in that house.

Momentum is clearly on our side. With the parents in 18 states and the District of Columbia already benefiting from one or more programs that enable parents to choose religious and/or independent schools, it’s only a matter of time that New York’s parents will demand equal justice.

Lawmakers correct disparity in school safety funding for Catholic schools

Date posted: March 26, 2013

Connecticut School Shooting

By Jim Cultrara

The horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut prompted a bold and swift response from Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers with the enactment of the strongest state gun control measure in the nation. Included in the NY SAFE Act, but largely unreported, was additional funding for schools to enhance their safety and security measures. One problem, the funds were destined only to public schools.  Another provision of the bill created a new School Safety Improvement Team to review safety plans submitted by — you guessed it — only public schools.  During the few hours that the bill was being negotiated, the Catholic Conference, together with the Orthodox Union and the UJA Federation of New York,  cried foul, as did a half dozen legislators.

How could lawmakers justify protecting only their public school constituents?  Sadly, it’s a disparity that is evident all too often in state politics.  Here are few examples:  Only public schools were protected initially from the cost of the MTA payroll tax.  Only public schools were given incentive grants in this year’s budget to extend learning time.  Only public schools were given teacher training funds.  The list goes on.

In the end, it was those few legislators (Senators Jack Martins and Simcha Felder and Assembly Members Mike Cusick, Steve Cymbrowitz, Michael Simanowitz, & Phil Goldfeder) who led the fight to ensure that funding for safety and security would be provided to all schools. If Sandy Hook taught us one thing, it’s that no school is completely safe.  The religious and independent school community owes these legislators in particular a debt of gratitude for standing up for all kids.

‘Fundamental existential threat’ to Catholic schools

Date posted: September 25, 2012

By Dennis Poust

The Times Union of Albany today highlights a growing threat to Catholic education, namely the rise of charter schools. The story highlights a soon-to-be-published report by Abraham Lackman, scholar-in residence at Albany Law School, demonstrating the negative impact charters have had on Catholic schools in cities across the state.

Lackman notes that for every charter school that has opened in New York State in the last decade, a parochial school has closed. In the city of Albany, which has the state’s largest number of charters per capita, Catholic school enrollment has declined by 65 percent, with four out of seven Catholic elementary schools closing and the city’s lone Catholic high school seeing its enrollment drop by two thirds.

“I believe charter schools are a fundamental existential threat to the Catholic system and I don’t see how many will survive,” Lackman told the TU. “They are clearly marketing themselves as an alternative to parochial schools, which was never the intent.”

And it’s not just a New York problem. Education Week has a national story on the phenomenon in its August 29th issue:

“Since the nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992, the number of those independently managed public schools has risen steadily. Today, some 5,600 charter schools, serving about 2 million students, operate in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

“Meanwhile, the number of students in Catholic schools has fallen. Since 2000, 1,942 Catholic schools around the country have shut their doors, and enrollment has dropped by 621,583 students, to just over 2 million today, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. If that decline continues, charter enrollment will surpass that of Catholic schools for the first time this academic year, according to Sean Kennedy, a visiting fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va., who has examined the two systems.”

The New York State Bishops believe firmly in school choice, and therefore support the concept of charter schools, which increase choice for parents. However, the state cannot afford to let Catholic schools, which have a much longer and more successful track record than charters, fall victim to this experiment. Because inevitably, it is the kids who lose. For instance, as the TU story notes, St. Casimir School in Albany served inner city, at-risk kids and did a great job preparing them to excel. But after the opening of three nearby charters and a drop in enrollment St. Casimir’s closed. That was bad enough, but subsequently, two of the three charters were closed by the state due to poor performance, leaving kids with no place to turn other than troubled public schools.

If the state is to continue with the charter school experiment, it is more imperative than ever that it level the playing field for tuition-paying families in independent and religious schools, through a tuition tax credit and or an education investment tax credit that enable parents of limited means to select the most appropriate school for their child.

Read the full Times Union story here.

Catholic vs. charter schools – let’s level the playing field

Date posted: February 23, 2012

By Jim Cultrara

An article in yesterday’s New York Daily News Charter vs. Catholic schools  revealed an alarming statistic –  charter schools account for 37 percent of the recent decline in the state’s Catholic school enrollment.  The article highlights some initial research by Abe Lackman, scholar in residence at Albany Law School, that was presented at a symposium recently hosted by St. Francis College.  I was asked to be on the panel to respond to the findings and I will stand by what I said then, namely:

  1. Parents should be alarmed, taxpayers should be alarmed, and lawmakers should be alarmed.
  2. Lawmakers intended charter schools to be an alternative to low-performing public schools (so, presumably, the siphoning off of religious and independent school students is unintended).
  3. Unless the playing field is leveled, far more Catholic schools will close, which in turn will unnecessarily disrupt thousands of lives and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars more.

When Cardinal Dolan testified in Albany last year, he urged lawmakers to reverse this trend.  Here’s a little of what he said:  “I stand with you in support of our public schools.  All I’m asking is that our support be for all our kids, whether they’re in government or independent schools.   I’m not surprised that our parents and kids are angry.  They know you support public schools – and that’s fine – so do they.  They know you support the growth of charter schools – and that’s fine too.  But they want to know why you are not supporting them as well.   As the public sector expands, the religious and independent sector is shrinking – and it is taxpaying families who pay the price.   Please reverse this trend.   We urge you to enact a scholarship or education tax credit program that will provide meaningful assistance to enable parents to choose the school best suited for their children.  You can afford to do no less.”

Read the Daily News article HERE.


Special education needs a shakeup!

Date posted: February 3, 2012

By Jim Cultrara

Michael Benjamin’s OpEd in the NY Post this week, Stop burning NY’s special-ed dollars, calls for a “shake up of New York’s shameful special-education system… with a school-choice program for students with special needs and disabilities. ”  Shameful is right.  Not only because far too many children with special needs are not getting the services they need, but because Mr. Benjamin’s proposed solution is opposed by the very people who are in place to serve these children.   Parents are the ones who bring children into this world and Mr. Benjamin is proposing to empower those parents with the means to direct their children’s education.  Frankly, that’s the way it already is for families with financial means and it should be the way for all families.  It’s a shame that such a proposal seems so radical.  And shame on those who oppose it.

Catholic Schools Week – Cause for celebration?

Date posted: February 2, 2012

By Jim Cultrara

Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 29 – Feb 4, has given us an opportunity to celebrate the enormous contributions that Catholic schools have made and continue to make in New York State and indeed across the entire country.  Our schools are an integral part of a pluralistic educational system that serves a diverse population and in doing so, they continue to help educate and form children into loving, productive and responsible adults – the kind of adult that is the foundation of solid families, businesses and our citizenry.  

Moreover, Catholic schools, like all other religious and independent schools, are a gargantuan gift to taxpayers because of the billions of tax dollars that are saved by not having to educate these children in public schools.  The source of that gift, however is traced back to the parents who struggle to make tuition payments for their children’s education  — not to mention the teachers, administrators and staff of Catholic schools who endure a salary lower than what their taxpayer-supported counterparts in public schools receive.    Think about that for a moment.  Tuition-paying parents not only pay income, property and sales taxes that support public schools, but their tuition dollars support the salaries (and therefore, income, property and sales taxes) of the teachers, administrators and staff who run the Catholic schools.    The government, in turn, collects those taxes and uses those dollars to support, among other things, public schools.    And what do these parents get in return for their gift to the state?   That’s a good question to ask of your elected representatives.

White House honors Catholic School Champions – including one of our own

Date posted: January 25, 2012

By Jim Cultrara

In anticipation of national Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 29 – Feb 4,  the White House today honored nine Catholic School Champions as part of the administration’s Champions for Change program.  Catholic Schools Week gave the White House an opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of Catholic schools and to explicitly honor and thank Catholic education leaders for making a difference in the lives of America’s school children.  My favorite quote from today’s ceremony, though I can’t recall who from the administration said it, was “Catholic schools are a lifeline for the children, families and neighborhoods that are struggling across America.” While it is appropriate (or should I say expected?) that lawmakers and public officials would use this one annual occasion to cuddle-up to Catholics, I still can’t get over the fact that it was the current administration that tried to end the District of Columbia’s highly successful Opportunity Scholarship Program – a program that enabled impoverished students to escape DC’s beleaguered public schools and to attend a school that worked, including Catholic schools. The families that are benefiting from the now restored DC scholarship program have House Speaker John Boehner and Senator Joe Lieberman to thank.  They’re the ones who forced the President to accept the restoration of the program. More

Cuomo takes another step forward for Catholic schools

Date posted: January 17, 2012

By Jim Cultrara

When Governor Cuomo took office, the Catholic Conference presented him with a full range of legislative initiatives and funding requests to support the needs of Catholic schools and indeed all religious and independent schools in the state.  Fewer than 40 days ago, Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Skelos, and Assembly Speaker Silver took action on one of those issues by exempting religious and independent schools from the crushing MTA payroll tax – a tax for which the public schools had been reimbursed.  On the heels of that accomplishment and with today’s release of his Executive Budget proposal for the 2012 – 2013 state fiscal year, Governor Cuomo took another vitally important step forward on another issue facing our schools – i.e., full funding for Mandated Services Reimbursement (MSR) and Comprehensive Attendance Policy (CAP) reimbursement and resolution of the state’s debt under both MSR and CAP.  The Governor’s budget recommends a 17 percent increase in funding for MSR (enough to fully reimburse religious and independent schools for their MSR expenses for the current school year)  and maintains funding for CAP reimbursement at last year’s level.

While the issue is arcane to most, it is critically important to religious and independent school administrators who wrestle to balance school budgets.  In short, while these schools are expending approximately $150 million annually ($90 million for MSR and $60 million for CAP) in complying with state mandates and participating in state programs – the state’s reimbursement has been limited to just over a $100 million.  A shortfall in reimbursement generally translates into tuition increases, which is why the issue is even more important to the parents who struggle to come up with tuition money.  The Governor’s proposal begins to correct the problem.  Is there still a shortfall in CAP reimbursement?  Sure. Are parents still struggling to pay tuition?  Of course.  But sure enough and step by step, the Governor and lawmakers are moving in the right direction.

The cost of Bloomberg’s education proposals

Date posted: January 13, 2012

By Jim Cultrara

In his 2012 State of the City address yesterday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s offered an ambitious five point program for education. I was immediately struck by two elements of the plan, not on their merit, but for the obvious (or, on second thought, perhaps not so obvious) implications for religious and independent schools and the families who sacrifice to send their children. First among the five points is the goal to attract, reward and retain “great teachers” by increasing base salary by 43 percent and helping to pay off college loans in return for a commitment to teach in city schools. Indeed a laudable goal, especially if diskrased teecher Mona Lisa Tello is even a miner reflekshun of the city’s teeching core. However, higher public school teacher salaries simply make it more difficult for religious and independent schools to attract and retain their own teachers – because fewer and fewer families can afford the higher tuition needed to underwrite those salary increases.

The second point of the plan that struck me is the Mayor’s call to provide parents with more quality choices, specifically to open 100 new schools in two years – 50 of which will be charter schools. It’s a shame that the city’s array of religious and independent schools cannot be considered among the choices that the city and state are subsidizing. Many of the religious and independent schools in the city, indeed in the state and nation, have vacant seats that parents would eagerly place their children in if they had the financial means. One thing is for sure: subsidizing only the public sector schools will increase the cost to taxpayers. There’s growing evidence that a considerable portion of the charter school enrollment comprises students who formerly attended religious and independent schools.  Has anyone asked what the cost to taxpayers is to support this migration from private to public schools?  Stay tuned, I’m just turning on my calculator.