In anticipation of the passage of the 2016 New York state budget, advocates for Catholic education had expressed support for education tax credits which would have provided additional financial assistance to low- and middle-income tuition-paying families who send their children to private schools.
Last month, Christian Riso, assistant superintendent for government programs in the Department of Catholic Schools, expressed disappointment that, although the majority of Western New York legislators support education tax credits, these tax credits were not included in this year's state budget.
According to Riso, the state budget provides assistance for Catholic schools. Private schools will receive $72.5 million in additional support, via $2 million to create the State Office of Religious and Independent Schools, $10.5 million to go toward safety equipment and $60 million in additional funds. However, Riso said low-income parents would have benefitted greatly from the education tax credits.
"Although we appreciate the additional support for our schools, we are disappointed Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislative leaders couldn't provide assistance directly to tuition-paying families," said Riso. "Low- and middle-income families that are paying tuition are angry. This anger will only intensify as the cost of a Catholic education goes up. We will continue to advocate for Catholic school families. We are hopeful that lawmakers will finally enact education tax credits before they adjourn in June this year."
Shortly after details of the state budget were released, Riso, who traveled to Albany earlier this year with other Catholic school representatives to advocate for the tax credits, said he has advocated for several other issues related to Catholic schools, but the tax credits were the focus of this term.
"The education tax credit was something that we were hoping would get in," he said. "The majority of Western New York legislators support education tax credits, and it keeps getting closer every year."
According to Riso, since Catholic school educators and parents have expressed what their needs are, it is up to the politicians in Albany to see if they can work with other politicians to find a way to support such legislation. The State Office of Religious and Independent Schools is a new office and the state agreed to open this as a way to support those running or attending religious and independent schools.
Riso said the reason this office is important is because since the majority of families in New York state send their children to public schools, the majority of the state education department's time is occupied with addressing needs of public school students.
However, a significant minority sends their children to Catholic and other independent and religious schools, which necessitates the need for a separate office.
"To have an office where they have a better understanding and take a little bit more time to understand that we function a little bit differently, really can help us when we're negotiating all of the regulations that we're expected to follow," Riso said. The real reason we are behind the education tax credit, is that regardless of the support we get for how our schools function and the kind of reimbursement that we get on the few things that we do for New York state, the parents still have to pay tuition."
As private school tuition continues to go up due to factors such as inflation and the increasing salaries of staff, Riso said private school parents are also paying taxes that support public schools.
"They are saying, 'Is there anything that you can do to help us, the people who are paying the tuition and not putting our kids in public schools, which means the state doesn't have to educate them?'"
The goal of the education tax credits is not to expect others to pay for private school parents to send their children to those private schools, Riso said, but rather to make it easier for families to be able to fit a private education into their budget. He also suggested that if donors wish to send money to the non-profit BISON Fund to provide scholarships for private schools, the state should encourage those donors to do so.
"That would be something that would allow the state to help support the families, and not necessarily directly support the institution," Riso said. "The family is the one who's choosing the education option that is most appropriate for their child. There are two different tax credits that are floating around. One is a tax credit to people who donate to funds that give scholarships out, so the credit actually goes to the donors, but because there are more donations, that means that more scholarships can be offered."
The second proposal is a tuition tax credit for low- and middle-income families, who would receive up to $500 off of their taxes to offset a portion of the tuition. Riso said this would be a way to directly help a family that chooses Catholic or other private education for their children while also helping New York state taxpayers, since otherwise the burden of paying for this education falls on the taxpayers of New York state if that family cannot afford tuition and the child is forced to attend a public school.
Riso said the diocese has been advocating for the education tax credits for some time and it plans to continue to do so. He said there is still time to enact them before the end of this year. He considered the possibility that if tax credits were enacted 10 years ago, some schools that have closed might not have had to do so.
"It's difficult for families to afford tuition while also paying school taxes," Riso said. "We know that. The legislators know that. It's also very expensive to educate children. Legislators know that, because they pass a budget for all of the public schools in New York state. We're doing the same thing, educating the children of New York state using the tuition dollars and financial support from our Catholic parishioners with limited funding from New York state."