Archbishop Dolan’s Testimony on Education Budget

Published on February 15th, 2011

Testimony of Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan Regarding the 2011-12 Education Budget

Joint Legislative Budget Hearing
February 15, 2011

Good afternoon, Senator DeFrancisco, Senator Flanagan, Assemblyman Farrell, Assemblywoman Nolan and honorable members, my name is Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. Joining me today is Dr. Timothy McNiff, Superintendent of Schools for the archdiocese, and Jim Cultrara, Director for Education at the NYS Catholic Conference, of which I am honored to serve as president.

I am grateful for this opportunity to comment on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposals related to elementary and secondary education. It is my hope and prayer that my comments help you shape a state budget that is fair, just and prudent. I am honored to address distinguished public officials such as yourselves, and deeply appreciate your high interest in education. I am here on behalf of the approximately 200,000 students in the state of New York in our Catholic schools, (the largest non-governmental school system in our state), young people and their parents of every religion or none at all, of every ethnic and economic background. I am speaking for them.

While my formal written testimony addresses numerous areas where are schools are in need of assistance, I will limit my oral remarks to just three of them.

First is the area of Mandated Services and Comprehensive Attendance Policy (CAP) Reimbursement:

The Governor is proposing an 8 percent cut in Mandated Services Reimbursement (MSR) and CAP reimbursement funding. This proposed cut is on top of the 6 percent shortfall from last year’s state budget which itself was on top of cuts in reimbursement from the previous two years. Are you sensing a theme here? This 8 percent cut, I might add, is greater than the 7.3 percent cut to governmental schools.

Keep in mind that the state is already delinquent on reimbursement to religious and independent schools for mandates carried out by our schools dating as far back as the 2002-03 school year. We estimate the state’s obligation to our schools to be approximately $270 million, and as a result of the state’s delinquency, our schools have been forced to raise tuition to fill the gap. Tragically, others have had to close because our families cannot bear the burden.

The blame for this growing debt falls squarely on the State Education Department which has yet to officially calculate their obligation to our schools under the 37-year old Mandated Services statute. Part of the reason for the delay is that in order to address an error the department made several years ago, they changed the CAP reimbursement formula to cover less than the full costs incurred by schools, and the department continues to use that faulty and unjust formula.

We recognize that the current fiscal situation will make it difficult for the state to satisfy its legal obligation. Nonetheless, it is imperative that you begin to do so. Accordingly, we urge you to do the following:

– First, demand that the State Education Department correct their error and revert to using the originally agreed-upon CAP formula;

– Second, demand that the State Education Department immediately provide an official accounting of the total amount that would be needed to fully reimburse our schools for the actual costs they have incurred beginning in the 2002-2003 school year to the present; and

– Third, we urge you to appropriate sufficient funds this coming fiscal year in order to keep the debt from growing any further and to ensure that the claims from each school can be fully paid. We estimate the amount needed ranges from $50 to $60 million more than what the Governor recommended.

The second area is the MTA Payroll Tax:

As you know, the MTA payroll tax is costing our parents approximately $7 million dollars every year. Governor Cuomo’s budget includes $70 million to reimburse public schools for their MTA costs, and not a dime for students in non-governmental schools. Our schools do not have reserve funds or tax levy authority like their public school counterparts. Our only options are to raise tuition and/or reduce services to students to cover this tax. Higher tuition means fewer kids in our schools and greater strain on the public system and your budgets.

We are grateful for the efforts being made thus far to remedy this injustice. I specifically want to thank Speaker Silver for his commitment and the full Assembly for having passed an MTA chapter amendment last year. I also want to thank Senator Skelos, Senator Lanza and Senator Golden for leading the effort in the Senate this year.

While there is support from both sides of the aisle in each chamber, it is vital that you not let another year slip by without fixing the problem. I urge you to include $7.5 million in the 2011-12 state budget to reimburse religious and independent schools for their MTA costs and to permanently include our children to the reimbursement entitlement in statute.

The third and most fundamental area is that of Parental Choice:

It is in the area of parental choice that we see the gravest injustice perpetrated on families, no matter whether it’s a family with children in public school or a family with children in a Catholic school, Yeshiva, or some other independent school.

Let me reiterate an argument that I know you’ve heard before. There are thousands of children trapped in chronically low-performing government schools — schools that have been proven to be ineffective. The cost to the taxpayer and society in general is exorbitant. The cost to the family, in the form of shattered hopes and dreams and lost human potential, is far deeper and more painful.

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. The leadership of the public school teachers’ unions has a vested interest in and a responsibility to support their members – the vast majority of whom are dedicated and hardworking teachers who deserve our support. However, the unions’ advocacy interests in this case conflict with the interests and needs of thousands of ordinary children and families. The majority of these families will continue to choose public schools for their children. But protecting jobs for adults justifies neither the burden on the taxpayer nor the violation of the rights of children who are forced to remain in schools that don’t serve them and that are likely unsafe. Schools exist to serve children and should not be considered employment programs.

Our government is empowered to remove a child from a neglectful home – and rightfully so. But why then isn’t a family empowered to remove their child from a government-run school that is neglecting their education or perhaps even their safety? The only means of escape for these children is if their family has enough money to move them to another school, or if they win a seat in a charter school.
And what about the families whose children are enrolled in an independent school? These families are shouldering the dual burden of taxes to support public schools and tuition to support their own children’s education. Why can’t they get some of their own tax money back to help support their own children?

Perhaps some fear that supporting a broader parental choice program will harm public schools. I’m here to tell you that you need not be afraid.

Just look at the experience in Milwaukee where we have the oldest and broadest parental choice programs in the country. Opponents of parental choice argued that choice would decimate the public schools. In fact, just the opposite happened. Not only did public school expenditures rise, but so did public school enrollment and academic achievement.

But how can that be if more children were being enrolled in religious and independent schools? Don’t take it from me, just ask former Milwaukee public officials, including Howard Fuller, the former Milwaukee school superintendent, who argue that parental choice helped to revitalize the city and, as a result, people began moving their families back into the city. Having served as the Archbishop of Milwaukee, I can attest to the fact that broad-based parental choice programs benefit all children in all schools.

Some will argue that we cannot afford parental choice programs. Again, the opposite is true – we cannot afford not to enact parental choice. If you continue to support only public schools, including charter schools, instead of all our children, then you will only exacerbate the fiscal crisis you are desperately trying to resolve, since the data clearly shows that we educate our children better for half the cost.

The Governor proposes $250 million in new spending to reward academic improvement in public schools. If you want academic success, you need to look no further than the New York’s religious and independent schools. But do the 200,000 students in our schools get rewarded? Quite the contrary.

The Governor also proposes another $250 million to reward administrative efficiencies in public schools. Not only are New York’s religious and independent schools the most efficient, but our families – the families who sacrifice to pay public school taxes and private school tuition – are saving New York taxpayers at least $8 BILLION each and every year! Where is their reward? They don’t even get a thank you. All they get are higher taxes and higher tuition.

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.

All I’m asking is that, in justice, when you laudably move to promote education, it be for all our kids, not just those in government schools.

While this concludes my oral remarks, I offer additional areas in my written testimony.

My prayers and best wishes are with you. I thank you for your time and consideration. We are more than happy to answer any question you may have.

Health, Safety, and Security Funds: Independent and religious schools comply with a number of mandates and provide a number of health, safety and security-related services for which they receive no funding. These include equipment for access and control of buildings and classrooms, annual fire inspections; triennial asbestos inspections; the purchase and training in the use of defibrillators and security equipment; elimination of mercury and dangerous substances used for cleaning and maintenance; radon and lead testing; etc. The health, safety and security needs of students are no less great in difficult fiscal times and we urge you to include authorizing statutory language to enable schools to be reimbursed for their expenses in these areas.

Nursing Services: More and more school children have acute and chronic health problems that require the daily attention and care of professional school nurses. Yet the shortage of school nurses leaves school administrators and teachers in the untenable position of having to respond to health emergencies and manage chronic health problems. School administrators and teachers are not health professionals and simply cannot and should not be forced to manage and respond to their students’ asthma, diabetes, food allergies and other health conditions.

In some cases, these health conditions can be life-threatening. A child who ingests or is otherwise exposed to a food allergen, for instance, can experience anaphylaxis and die without the timely and professional administration of an epipen injection. An asthmatic student can easily experience respiratory distress requiring the administration of nebulized medication. Typical playground, athletic and even classroom accidents and injuries often require immediate professional medical attention.

The protracted nursing shortage is well documented, both nationally and in New York State. The shortage of school nurses is due, in large measure, to inadequate pay. In some cases, the salary of school bus drivers and custodial employees exceeds that of school nurses. For parents, as well as for the school staff to whom children have been entrusted, there is nothing more important that the health and safety of their children. It is simply unconscionable to put the lives and well-being of children at risk.

We urge the Governor and Legislature to ensure that a full-time nurse is available for every public, independent and religious school that needs one.

Academic Intervention Services: Currently only $922,000 is appropriated annually to independent and religious schools to implement the Academic Intervention Services (AIS) regulations promulgated by the Board of Regents – far below the $20 million that is needed. Without adequate funding now, these at-risk children may easily fall behind even more – thus requiring more expensive academic interventions later. AIS funding should be increased so that, like public schools, our schools are able to provide these services to our children who are most in need.

Transportation: Next to their ability to afford tuition, the second most common challenge faced by parents in enrolling their children in religious or independent schools is their ability to have their children transported to school. When parents are denied their choice of a religious or an independent school because transportation services are not available, are unreasonable or are unreliable, the burden on taxpayers increases to accommodate these children in public school. It makes financial sense to enable more parents to enroll their children in religious and independent schools and thus we strongly urge the following: (1) Return to the long-standing practice of 90 percent state reimbursement of school district transportation costs; (2) increase the maximum distance school districts are required to transport children to school from 15 to 25 miles; (3) allow parents the option to pay for the cost of transportation beyond 25 miles; (4) ensure that transportation is not denied to religious and independent schools when public schools are closed or when they make mid-year calendar changes; and (5) require small city school districts to transport children up to the maximum mileage limit rather than city limits.

Teacher Training and Mentoring: The Regents have mandated 87.5 hours of continuing education every five years for certified teachers employed by independent and religious schools. In addition, the regulations of the Board of Regents require new teachers to obtain a mentoring experience in their first year of employment. Despite the difficult fiscal situation, it is imperative that we provide the means for all teachers to obtain and maintain the highest level of professional competence. We urge you to include $10 million in Mandated Services Aid to reimburse independent and religious schools for their expenses in providing the mandated continuing education to certified teachers and $5 million in funding to reimburse schools for their expenses in mentoring new teachers.

Learning Technology Grants: The Governor proposes $3.3 million for Learning Technology grants. The limited funding for this valuable program, however, serves only some 50 school districts along with their independent and religious school partners. We strongly urge you to increase the appropriation to a level sufficient to enable all needy schools to benefit from this program.