Two high-ranking state Senate Democrats who support a $250-million education tax credit plan that would funnel private funding to scholarship programs for private and public schools, said they’ll take a second look at the bill, in light of Tax Watch’s analysis of the groundbreaking proposal.
State Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, and state Sen. George Latimer, D-Rye, said they want revisit the bill, with both saying they are concerned that there is no limit on the family income of students who would qualify for the private school scholarships.
The plan also drew criticism from attorney Michael Rebell, who heads up The Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Rebell led the Campaign for Fisccal Equity’s successful lawsuit, in which the state Court of Appeals ruled in 2003 that the state had failed to provide adequate financing for the New York City school system.
“This is an insidious attempt to shift funding from the public sector to the private sector,” said Rebell. “At a time when the state has failed to carry out its obligations under the CFE decree, it shouldn’t be siphoning off money to the private sector. It’s going to be a disaster for public education.”
Tax Watch found that 14 of 16 states with tax credits for education place income limits on who can receive the tax-credit funded scholarships. New York’s proposed law has no such limit. In addition, New York would allow unlimited dollar-for-dollar tax credits – up to 75 percent of an individual or corporation’s state tax liability – to private scholarship funds, individual public schools, or public –school foundations. Most states limit the tax credit to between 50 and 75 percent of the donation.
“Having an income level should be part of the legislation,” said Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Caucus, which has a power sharing arrangement with the Senate Republicans in Albany’s senior chamber.
Latimer, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, and ranking Democrat on the state Senate Education Committee, welcomed the Tax Watch column, which put the New York proposal into a national perspective.
“These are valid issues that should become part of the discussion,” said Latimer. “I knew it didn’t have an income limit, but I didn’t realize what other states have done. Having an income-limit makes some sense. We are trying to help the poor, not advance those who already have the resources.”
The bottom line, said Latimer, was to enact state policies that would help private and parochial schools. These schools educate New York students, and if the schools closed, Latimer said the taxpayers would be socked with an even bigger bill to educate all those now taught in private and parochial schools.
“If we saw a total collapse of the Archdiocese education system, I don’t see how the public system could absorb that kind of hit,” he said. “I’m concerned about the viability of the public schools, but I do see the complementary nature of the non-public system. In my district, in Port Chester and Yonkers, many of those kids in nonpublic schools are poor kids, and their families struggle.”
Klein said he hopes Gov. Andrew Cuomo includes the tax-credit plan into his 2014 budget. Latimer said he hopes the proposal gets fully vetted in the 2014 session.
“The discussion when we get back to session will be along the lines of what you have raised,” Latimer said. “If we want to bring this to closure, there will need to be modifications to the law. We need to look to other states to see what they have done.”
Organizing the tax-credit effort is a nonprofit called the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, whose president, Tom Carroll, led the anti-tax group, Change-NY in the 1990s. For the past several years, Carroll has promoted charter schools in the Albany area, through the Brighter Choice Foundation. The Coalition’s vice president is Peter Murphy, the former policy director of the New York Charter Schools Association.
The organization’s website is dedicated solely to the tax-credit issue.
Carroll was not available for comment on Friday. But Coalition spokesman Robert Bellafiore said most of the private school scholarship funds have income-limits on who can receive the scholarships.
“Virtually all of them have income limits,” said Bellafiore.
He said Saturday that a “large number of supporters” agree that the income-limit issue should be addressed in the upcoming session.
He also dismissed criticism from Pelham school board member Will Cavanagh, who feared that the tax-credit plan would widen the disparities between rich district, like Pelham, and poor districts like Mount Vernon. Cavanagh said he expected that wealthy taxpayers would make donations to their local schools and foundations while Mount Vernon lacked the financial clout in its community to make such donations.
“Is there any evidence for that hypothesis?” said Bellafiore. “It sounds like he made it up.”
Latimer said he also had questions about a section of the Senate bill, of which he is sponsor, which would allow tax-credit funded private donations to charter schools, which are public schools, but operate outside the purview of local school boards. The state Assembly bill bars charter schools from receiving such donations.
“I lean more toward the Assembly on charters, “ said Latimer. “There are negotiations ahead of us. We’ll see what gets put on the table.”
Another co-sponsor, state Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, D-Mount Vernon, told Tax Watch she sees no reason to exclude charter schools, if the bill would allow tax-credit donations to all other public schools, and scholarship programs that serve private schools. Mount Vernon is home to one of two Westchester charter schools.
“We have to be responsible to educate all children in our district, and if we are not doing a successful job in the public schools, then we can’t hold parents hostage to a public system if their children aren’t being successful,” she said. “We need to figure out how to improve the public schools, but let parents have a choice while we do those corrective measures. We don’t want to lose an entire generation while we figure out what to do with the public schools.”