Some say Catholic schools save taxpayers billions
As the New York State Legislature prepares to return for an Aug. 19 emergency economic session to reopen this year's budget and discuss next year's $6.4 billion deficit, Catholics from around the state continue to propose one means of controlling education spending.
For many years, they have annually lobbied their state representatives to enact educational tax credits that would help struggling Catholic- and public-school families.
Catholics statewide and the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s bishops in matters of public policy, argue that New York's 500,000 independent- and religious-school students save state taxpayers $7.5 billion every year. That figure is derived from the average $15,000 per year it costs to educate one student in the state’s public schools, according to Catholic conference data.
This past March, Catholics from the Rochester Diocese traveled to Albany to lobby their legislators again about tax credits and other issues affecting their lives and the lives of those they serve. And this year, they spoke from experience about the need for the tax credit, explaining that the diocese was about to close 14 of its schools at the end of the 2007-08 school year due to precipitous enrollment declines driven by rising tuition and operating expenses.
If New York's Catholic schools continue closing, as has been happening at a rate of about 10 schools per year statewide, state taxpayers will find themselves paying more and more for public schools, contended Jim Cultrara, the Catholic conference's director for education and cochairperson of the state Coalition of Independent and Religious Schools.
But with Albany's financial woes mounting, do Catholics have a prayer of being heard? No conversations are off the table, Gov. David Paterson said in a July 30 press conference.
"We will be talking to school boards, parents, unions -- anyone involved in the schools process to see where we stand there," he said.
Paterson has called for state agencies to cut $630 million in spending and for the Legislature to cut an additional $600 million from the current year's budget.
Cultrara said he fears that for the second time this year the state will look at independent and religious schools as it makes cuts. During this year's budget negotiations, the state gave public schools a $1.75 billion funding increase, while cutting by 2 percent -- or just less than $3 million -- from reimbursements it is legally required to pay independent and religious schools in compensation for costs these schools incur in complying with a variety of state mandates.
In an effort to combat this 2-percent cut, independent and religious schools lobbied lawmakers to reinstate reimbursements at 100 percent, and the bill passed the Senate unanimously.
Yet Cultrara noted, "despite some support of a number of Assembly members, (Assembly) Speaker (Sheldon) Silver did not let it come up for a vote in the Assembly." He said the Catholic conference will continue to advocate for a restoration of funding.
Cultrara admitted that $3 million is a relatively small sum, but he said independent and religious schools are already financially strained.
"It is not much at all -- except from an individual school’s point of view, it is significant, considering the financial stress it is under," Cultrara said.
Among the many strains on the budgets of independent and religious schools are rising teacher salaries and benefits, aging facilities, costs for instructional materials and equipment, and the expense associated with such state mandates as administering tests and compiling student data, he said.
And the schools have a limited capacity to raise tuition with the expectation that parents will be able to absorb the added financial burden, he noted. Parents of students outside the public system struggle to pay private-school tuition on top of local property taxes that support public schools and state income taxes, which also fund education aid to public schools, he said.
"Without some sort of meaningful support from the state Legislature and governor, they (parents) are more and more unable to meet that challenge, and unable to exercise the right to choose their child’s education. And they are forced to enroll in public schools at a far greater cost to taxpayers," Cultrara said.
Most local school districts told the Catholic Courier that they will be able to absorb the displaced Monroe County Catholic-school students who chose to attend their schools without much added cost to taxpayers.
Districts reporting no discernible effect on budget or enrollment were: Brighton, Churchville-Chili, Fairport, Hilton and Honeoye-Falls Lima. Such districts as Spencerport, meanwhile, said it is too early to tell whether the Catholic-school closings will affect their staffing needs.
The Rochester City School District also reported that it expects to be able to absorb former Catholic-school students into its 2008-09 budget, but the district won't know for certain until September whether the student influx will lead to increased costs.
The same can be said for West Irondequoit, where the district added two elementary teaching positions to the budget in anticipation of absorbing former Catholic-school students. But officials won't know until the end of August whether these positions will be needed, said William Domm, assistant superintendent for business and personnel.
Two other districts said the Catholic-school closings have had financial consequences for their districts.
In Rush-Henrietta, the Catholic-school closings exacerbated an existing space crunch that has forced the district to look for temporary space and take action on an expansion to Monica Leary Elementary School on East Henrietta Road.
In the spring voters approved propositions to create a reserve fund and spend $2.39 million to renovate and add an addition to Leary Elementary. This proposal would not increase the school’s budget or tax rate. But until the addition is built, the district hopes to lease for two years the recently closed Good Shepherd School, in which Leary's kindergarten students would be housed, said Debbie Rogowicz, assistant superintendent for business and school operations.
The plan to lease the building, which would cost additional taxpayer money, has been approved by the state Education Department and must still be approved by the Rush-Henrietta Board of Education and Good Shepherd Parish. Once the addition at Leary Elementary is built, kindergarten students would return to the school, Rogowicz said.
Wheatland-Chili Central School District, meanwhile, has seen an increase in applications to the Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program from Rochester students who formerly attended St. Monica School, said district Superintendent Thomas Gallagher. The urban-suburban program is a voluntary exchange program between suburban-school students and city-school students, and spots for the program are filled on an as-needed basis.
Costs per student
Regardless of whether public schools project a direct increase in costs due to the closing of Catholic schools, New York taxpayers will still foot a higher bill, Cultrara contends.
Though the state-aid formula varies by school, Cultrara noted that public-school districts may be eligible to receive an average of $8,000 in state-education aid for each former Catholic-school student enrolling in public schools, which ultimately takes more money out of state taxpayers' wallets. Local taxpayers also may see higher local school-tax levies with increases in enrollment, he said, noting that districts spend an average of $7,000 to $8,000 per student in addition to the state aid.
"Right now, taxpayers are paying virtually nothing to have students educated in independent and religious schools," Cultrara said.
State taxpayers do pay for certain services to Catholic-school students as they do for public-school students -- at a cost that Cultrara estimates at about $500 per student -- which is paid no matter where the student attends school. Among these services are providing computers, textbooks, software, library materials and reimbursement for such mandates as testing administration, data reporting, Regents attendance policies and remedial education for needy pupils. Local districts also may pay portions of transportation, health-services and special-education expenses.
Jody Siegle, executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association, said per-student state-aid figures for Monroe County are much lower than Cultrara's $8,000-per-student figure, although the total cost to educate a student in Monroe County does range from about $14,000 to $17,000. Some well-off districts may receive about $1,500 in per-student aid, while needier districts may receive $5,000 or more per student, she said.
Cultrara countered that multiple state funding streams -- including operating, transportation and building aid -- are included in the average $8,000-per-child cost he cites.
Siegle said many factors affect the per-child cost of education. She cited the example of parents choosing to send students to charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate under different state regulations and scrutiny than those that apply to public schools. In the case of a charter-school enrollment, she said, a large chunk of state aid goes with the student even though costs to the public school have not decreased.
"Even though one child has left (a school), you still are heating the classroom, paying the teacher and buying textbooks," Siegle said.
Help for all schools
Acknowledging the ever-increasing costs of public and private education, the state Catholic conference notes that it supports multiple educational tax-credit proposals to benefit both public and private schools.
The conference supports a proposed tax credit to help public- and private-school parents pay for such educational expenses as tuition, supplies and tutoring. Such a tax credit failed to attract widespread support in Albany this year.
The conference also supports the Educational Tax Incentives Act, which would give a modest tax credit to individuals and corporations in exchange for donations to public schools and to scholarship funds for private schools. The bill also includes a tax credit for school personnel and homeschooling parents who buy classroom supplies and materials.
Tim Mulhearn, president of United New Yorkers for Choice in Education, said there is a strong indication that the Senate may pass the Educational Tax Incentives Act this year, but he noted that the Assembly has not indicated support for the bill.
According to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, education tax credits and deductions exist in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Among those opposed to tuition tax deductions and credits is New York State United Teachers, a federation of teachers' unions, which claims deductions or credits are a public gift for private purposes. The union further argues that nonpublic schools are not accountable to taxpayers and are not held to the same standards as public schools.
Cultrara said the Catholic conference's support for bills that also benefit public schools shows that the conference does not intend to take any funding from public schools, especially since most Catholic students are educated in public schools.
"It doesn’t hurt public schools," Cultrara said of such proposals. "It in fact saves the state money -- money which could then be used to enhance the public schools."
Besides benefitting taxpayers, Catholic schools benefit students who learn in educationally sound and values-driven environments, said Anne Willkens Leach, the new diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools.
"The choice is up to the parents, but if the parents’ choice is a Catholic school, we want to do everything in our power to make sure that they can go there," Willkens Leach said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For updates on New York legislative activity, visit www.nyscatholic.org, and join the Catholic Advocacy Network.