Giving Families a Choice: Education Tax Credits

“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. That’s why we need to support parental choice in education,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo once said.

The occasion was his introduction of education investment tax credit legislation, known as the Parental Choice in Education Act in May of 2015. The legislation would provide a $500 tuition tax credit for families making $60,000 per year or less who send their children to a religious or independent school. The law would also provide an education investment tax credit to individuals and corporations who donate to public schools and scholarship-making organizations, and a $100 personal tax credit for public school teachers for their out of pocket classroom expenses. In total, the legislation would provide for $150 million in credits.

To me – and to Archbishop Cardinal Dolan – it seems like everybody wins. The NY Times has even reported that “17 labor unions support the plan, saying it would help children of their members.”

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and Cardinal Timothy Dolan
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo (l.) and Cardinal Timothy Dolan visit Eggertsville, NY as part of a cross-state tour to promote an education tax credit.
(Patrick McPartland/Staff Photographer for Western New York Catholic)

The main tentpoles of the legislation have a long history in NY state. A Commission on Catholic Schools, headed by former Governor Hugh Carey, dates back to the 1970s. It began life as a way to stem the uptick in Catholic school closures.

Later on, former Governor George Pataki proposed a tax credit for after school programs, tutoring or private tuition. That died in the Democrat-controlled Assembly.

Since 2012, similar bills have been squirreling their way through both the NY State Senate and Assembly. During this wave, the scope of the legislation was made more broad to include public schools, including the addition of a tax credit worth at least $100 for teachers who bought their own classroom supplies.

Some of the stumbling has been due to the recent injection of charter schools into the mix. Nevertheless, the bill passed in the Senate by a 55-to-4 vote.

But lately, the Governor has cooled on the idea. Where once Governor Cuomo decried the “failing public schools” in places where you would not want to send your children, he is now showing his back to any education investment tax credits plan. The tax cut was not included in his 2017-18 budget, which has been widely taken to mean he has withdrawn his support.

NYS Capitol Panorama
New York State Capitol. Photograph: CC-BY-SA-3.0 Matt H. Wade

It’s not just a Catholic issue – any and all private/nonpublic or parochial school stands to benefit. That’s 15 percent of the student population in New York – or about 400,000 children. That number may be dwindling, but not due to choices made by students or their parents. Across New York, more than 75 parochial schools have closed in the last five years. If that wasn’t enough, a report in the Peabody Journal of Education in 2016 looked at 21 studies on the effect school choice has on test scores, and determined that competition from private schools leads to improved test results for students in public schools.

Although not giving up hope for education investment tax credit legislation to be passed in New York, the Cardinal has switched his focus recently to the national stage. In a column written for the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, he called upon President Donald Trump to “push Congress to make scholarship tax credits available to working-class families.”

It’s unfortunate that, even in the face of overwhelming data supporting the value of education investment tax credits, families and lawmakers may need to act nationally to benefit locally.