Francisco Guzman worries his children’s school could close at any moment.
Two of his four children graduated from Catholic Academy of West Buffalo, and the other two now attend the private school. Guzman is thankful Catholic Academy is not one of the 10 Catholic elementary schools the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo will close at the end of the school year. But he said what happens in the future remains “unknown.”
So he joined hundreds of Catholic school students, parents and educators at a rally Wednesday in Niagara Square to support a bill they believe would keep other Catholic schools from closing. Supporters say the Education Investment Tax Credit bill would help families afford tuition at Catholic and other private schools by generating millions of dollars in scholarships,
“We want to strengthen our financial backing so that all families that are attending Catholic Academy have the accessibility to scholarships,” Guzman said.
Even with his full-time job, Guzman would not have been able to send his four children to the Catholic school without the BISON Children’s Scholarship Fund, he said. The privately-funded program provides scholarships to low-income elementary students in Western New York.
If the bill becomes law, more scholarships like those provided by the BISON Fund would be available and allow more families to enroll their children in Catholic schools, resulting in fewer school closures and more children gaining religious and academic educations, he said.
In addition to funding scholarships for low- and middle-income students to attend religious and other private schools, the bill would increase funds to public schools, school districts and teacher-driven projects, according to the Diocese of Buffalo. Under the bill, students could benefit from up to $150 million in annual charitable contributions to scholarships organizations.
Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo, who in January made the decision to close the schools, told the crowd that he met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo on March 18 about the tax credit. Cuomo promised the Education Investment Tax Credit would be part of this year’s budget, the bishop said.
But when state lawmakers approved the budget in April, the tax credit wasn’t included.
“We feel as if Gov. Cuomo is kicking Catholic school children to the curb,” Malone told the crowd of mostly students from Catholic Academy of West Buffalo, Our Lady of Black Rock School in Buffalo and St. Andrew’s Country Day School in Kenmore. “He is treating families in Catholic schools and families who want to be in Catholic schools as second-class citizens.”
The legislation would give a state tax credit – up to $1 million – to individuals and entities that donate to one of the many nonprofit organizations set up to provide scholarships for religious and other private schools. The donated money could not go directly to the schools or parents, though a separate provision of the bill would allow people to get a tax break for making donations to a public school or school district.
When asked if passing the bill would prevent future school closings, Malone said it’s “one big answer.”
The diocese closed the schools in part because of changing demographics of the parishes in the region, as well as prohibitive tuition levels for some parents.
Malone said he can’t control demographic changes, but financial assistance would help send more children to Catholic schools and, hopefully, keep the schools open.
Critics, though, call the tax credit plan a backdoor voucher system. The state’s largest teachers union – New York State United Teachers – has been the biggest opponent of the measure.
NYSUT has raised questions about who monitors the nonprofit groups that would accept donations eligible for the tax credits to ensure that the system is not abused by allowing a donor to direct where his or her contribution ends up, such as an expensive private school attended by their own children.
Schools on the closure list are: Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Vincent de Paul in Elma; Fourteen Holy Helpers in West Seneca; Our Lady of Pompeii in Lancaster; Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and St. Bernadette in Orchard Park; St. Francis of Assisi in the City of Tonawanda; St. Joseph in Gowanda; St. Leo the Great in Amherst; and St. Mary of the Lake in Hamburg. The closings will reduce to 41 the number of Catholic elementary schools in the eight counties of the diocese – down from 86 a decade ago.