Private school interests pushing for a controversial tax credit got some backing Tuesday -- albeit conditional -- from the leader of the Democratic-led Assembly, which traditionally has blocked tax breaks for parents of children in religious and other private schools.
As thousands of parents, schoolchildren and officials from religious and private schools could be heard rallying outside the Capitol, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said he was "open to the idea" of assisting parents and schools with some sort of education tax break.
"I feel for the plight of parents who spend an inordinate amount of money in terms of raising and educating children in this state," said Silver, whose five children attended Jewish schools in New York City.
But Silver cautioned that issues such as tuition tax breaks "are just going to have to take second place at this point" until agreements can be reached with Gov. George E. Pataki and State Senate Republicans to resolve a landmark court case ordering the state to pump billions of additional dollars into public schools.
The tuition tax credit plan, proposed by Pataki last month, is shaping up as one of this year's most divisive state budget debates, putting two powerful special interests -- the public and private school lobbies -- on a collision course.
"We want fairness," said Cardinal Edward Egan, the state's highest ranking Catholic prelate.
"Quite simply, it's disgusting," Michael Davoli, a spokesman with the Alliance for Quality Education, a group representing parents, teachers and others seeking more money for public schools, said of the tax credit push. "This smacks of political opportunism. This smacks of trying to secure votes at the expense of public school children across the state."
The long-simmering issue came to a head Tuesday when thousands of parents and officials from private and religious schools rallied at the Capitol pressing for a $500 annual tax credit per family for educational expenses, which could include tuition at religion-linked schools, after-school tutoring, summer school or supplies for a public school student.
Pataki said he believes most of the beneficiaries would be parents who send their children to public schools. But such parents were nowhere in sight Tuesday on the east steps of the Capitol, as parents and students from Catholic, Jewish and non-religious private schools came from across the state to push for the tax breaks.
"Buffalo Public Schools are not an option," said Laura DiRocco, a Buffalo mother of two children in Catholic schools who arrived on one of two buses arranged by the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. She said she spends $9,000 a year on Catholic school education for her children. "We're just looking for a tiny bit of relief," DiRocco said.
Pataki's plan would reserve the full $500 to credit for families with annual incomes of less than $75,000. Those with annual incomes up to $90,000 would qualify for smaller amounts.
Paula Fisher said she pulled her two children out of public school in Batavia, where she pays $4,000 a year in school taxes, to attend a local Catholic school. "I'm here because I want enrollment to increase so there will be a choice for the future," she said.
But as a Batavia resident, Fisher would not qualify for Pataki's tax credit, which would be limited to 81 districts with at least one under-performing school as determined by the federal No Child Left Behind standards.
In Western New York, that means Buffalo, Lancaster, Sweet Home, Niagara Falls, Niagara-Wheatfield, Franklinville and Dunkirk schools.
Pataki says the tax credit would cost the state $400 million a year, though critics put the figure far higher because the Pataki proposal has no limit per school district. Private school leaders also are pushing to make it available to all schools statewide.
Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, denounced the idea, saying:
"The governor's proposed education tax credits are thinly disguised vouchers that would reduce public dollars for public education. There is no difference between the state sending checks to private schools and tutors, and the state giving tax credits to parents who pay for private schools and tutors."
Critics worry that the program's cost would diminish funds available for public schools. They also say the state first should comply with a 2004 court decision in a case brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity to get more money for New York City schools. Officials have since said any plan dealing with that decision would include money for the rest of the state's schools. The governor, again, is appealing the matter.
Richard Iannuzzi, president of the politically potent union New York State United Teachers, said that, with the state looking at a $3 billion surplus, the governor is going in the "opposite direction" of what a court ordered.
He called the Pataki plan "an affront to public schools" that will force property taxes to rise to compensate for the credit.