Disappointing day for equal educational opportunity in New York

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by Darla Romfo

Romfo
Romfo

For the last several months, the New York legislature has been debating a tax credit scholarship bill that would have increased charitable funding to help more children from low- and moderate-income New York families obtain a quality education in both public and non-public schools. Unfortunately, this week, we learned it did not make it into the final agreement reached by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and our state’s legislative leaders.

This disappointment comes despite forceful advocacy from Cuomo, who barnstormed the state in support of the plan, and the backing of 150 organizations that spanned the political spectrum and included police, firefighter, construction and other trade unions.

This was the first time anywhere in the country that such a diverse group joined a Democratic governor to support a program aimed at helping disadvantaged students attend the same private schools as their better-off peers.

Instead, legislative leaders approved spending $250 million to reimburse non-public schools for government-mandated services, including reporting daily attendance, administering state exams, and buying technology.

While the funds are welcome, they will not help families who are struggling financially to keep their children enrolled in a private or parochial school, or are desperate to make that choice, but can’t afford tuition.

Under pressure from the New York State United Teachers and the New York City United Federation of Teachers, many Democrats in the Assembly abandoned their support for the Education Tax Credit and blocked its passage, even though every one of them represents many families the legislation was designed to help.

Ironically, the teachers unions must have been okay with giving $250 million to private schools directly. The problem they clearly have is with empowering parents with expanded private scholarship opportunities for their children – even though it would have come at a lower cost to the state.

The arguments that the tax credit would benefit the “wealthy and Wall Street” and “take away” from public education are completely bogus to any person who takes even a moment to look a little more closely at the issue.

The real beneficiaries of the Education Tax Credit would have been the mostly low-income children who could have used tax credit funds to attend private or parochial schools with scholarships. Donors who contributed to scholarship funds would only have received only 75 cents on the dollar in tax credits.

Just this April, in the New York State budget, lawmakers approved a $1.5 billion increase to public education for next year, to $23.5 billion – the most financial aid ever approved by the state to public schools. The Education Tax Credit would not have taken a dime of this money away.

Meanwhile, most private and parochial schools get by on significantly less money than public schools.
The average cost to educate an elementary school student in New York City Catholic schools is around $7,000, compared to around $20,000 per student in the New York City public schools. The tuition they actually pay is often even lower, averaging around $4,000 a student, and yet many struggling families simply cannot afford these schools which have helped to lift generations of New Yorkers into the middle class.

As education costs climb while results do not, lawmakers who resist adapting to our new economy by embracing a range of education alternatives, including charter schools, private schools, homeschooling and blended learning, should be aware of the real threat we face when students do not get the education they need to become successful adults. We can’t afford to see students continue to drop out of high school or graduate without the skills necessary to support themselves because they were denied opportunities that would have helped them succeed.

We need to stop defensively pitting public schools against private schools. And we shouldn’t be afraid to empower parents to make the decision of where and how their children should be educated.

In the meantime, the Children’s Scholarship Fund and its Buffalo partner will continue to help as many New York children as we can obtain a better education by providing privately funded scholarships allowing them to attend private and parochial schools. As an example of our impact, 92 percent of our CSF Scholars graduated on time last June and 90 percent are now enrolled in college.

When New Yorkers read the news reports that denying this opportunity to children was a victory for the teachers unions, they’ll see the system is serving someone. Too bad it’s not the kids.

Darla M. Romfo is President and COO of the Children’s Scholarship Fund.