State tax credits offer mostly false hope

My wife and I put our two sons through Catholic schools. It was expensive and difficult at times—and paying that tuition left us with a lot less money for their college years.

Truth be told, I would have loved a little help. A tax deduction or credit would have given us the cushion we rarely had. Even so, we were fortunate to have a choice of where to send our sons to school.

I am well aware that lots of parents can only wish they had the choices we had. So I get the appeal of the Parental Choice in Education Act, for which Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City are barnstorming the state, hoping voters will push their legislators to act on the bill before they adjourn in June.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

But the Parental Choice bill offers more bluster than real choice —especially for the poorest families who can’t help their children escape schools that don’t work.

“Education is the greatest gift that a parent can give to their children—and it is also one of the most personal decisions that a parent can make,” Cuomo says. “That’s why we need to support parental choice in education.”

Says Dolan: “This is not just a Catholic issue—it is an issue for every parochial, private or nonpublic school that is devoted to the success of their students.”

Obviously I have no quarrel with people sending their kids to parochial or private schools, but Albany’s job, as it says in the state Constitution, is to guarantee every child a “sound basic education.” The state is supposed support a public school system that works for every child, not  help a few families escape broken public schools.

The Parental Choice in Education Act would cost as much as $150 million in the first year and perhaps more later. It would:

  • Provide tax credits worth up to $500 for low- to moderate-income families who want to send a child to a private school.
  • Provide non-profit organizations or wealthy individuals with tax credits worth up to 75 percent of donations made to establish scholarships to private schools.

Two problems: The neediest families will not be able to afford private school education even with a $500 tax credit—toward a $5,000, $6,000 or $10,000 tuition bill (that’s true, even if they also receive a partial scholarship). And while it’s possible that scholarships may benefit a few students, those tax credits amount to a direct transfer of state revenues from public to private education. A credit is far more generous than a tax deduction. A tax credit for a $1 million scholarship donation might cost state taxpayers $750,000; a $1 million deduction would cost less than $90,000 (assuming the donor pays the top tax rate of 8.82 percent).

“The education tax credit is outrageous,” says Billy Easton, Executive Director of  the Alliance for Quality Education. “Everyday taxpayers will be subsidizing donations to private schools by millionaires. These are our public tax dollars and they should be going to our public schools, not sheltering millionaires from taxes.”

It’s clearly true that many children in New York (including tens of thousands in Rochester ) do not have access to a “sound basic education.” And they deserve better choices. But this bill offers mostly false hope to parents who deserve access to good public schools for their children.

A private school tax credit, like the proliferation  of charter schools, is an incentive to abandon traditional public schools. If Cuomo is serious about guaranteeing parents better choices, he’d do well to support efforts to promote socio-economic integration to end the high poverty schools that continue t0 fail the neediest children in our state. Offering a few children a lifeline is not the way to meet the state’s obligation to all our children.