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Affordable education key to bill foundering in Albany

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When state legislators convened for their first session of the new year, there was one bill education advocates were hoping they would address: the Education Investment Incentives Act, which targets the growing crisis of affordability in education by creating a new investment tax credit.

There’s a consensus among private and parochial schools that high tuition costs are putting affordable education in the private sector out of reach for too many families. In late January, educators from Jewish and Catholic schools and parents of private school students met with legislators at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester in Hartsdale. They participated in a formal conversation about the growing number of families who are being priced out of private schools and the consequences of legislative inaction. The high cost of education has been a major factor in dropping enrollment. Although it’s not the only factor, tuition affordability is among the reasons some Catholic schools have to close.

“Catholic schools in particular have been losing enrollment for several decades, including and especially the last decade,” said Jim Cultrara, director for education with the New York State Catholic Conference. “It threatens the solvency of high-performing schools not just in Westchester, but in inner city New York.”

At the end of this school year, 22 Catholic elementary schools and two high schools, including five in Westchester County, will close their doors. The school closings have been blamed on outstanding payments from the state of New York to the diocese, a changing demographic in some Catholic school neighborhoods and tuition costs.

With tuition averaging $3,800 for elementary schools and $7,300 for high schools in the New York archdiocese, the cost has become too high for many parents to afford.

Many families were deeply impacted by the financial crisis that resulted in the nation’s Great Recession. As enrollment dwindled, the archdiocese determined it could no longer support these schools that were no longer self-sufficient.

Cultrara, who led the conversation at the Solomon Schechter School, said closing the schools doesn’t make the problem go away, it merely shifts the burden.

“We have two Catholic schools in Yonkers slated to close at the end of the school year,” he said. “The city of Yonkers cannot absorb the several hundred students. They’re already overcrowded. It will cost thousands more to educate them.”

The cost translates into taxes on residents. New York schools spend $18,618 per student every year. That’s more than any other state in the country.

Elliot Spiegel, head of the Solomon Schechter School, said among Jewish day schools the problem of affordability is becoming a daily conversation. The school educates students within a 50-mile radius of its Hartsdale address making the student body economically diverse. For some, the rising cost of living has made tuition costs a strain. The tuition range for Solomon Schechter goes from $19,300 a year for kindergarten to $22,200 for fifth grade. Spiegel said the cost of living is a factor in determining teachers’ salaries. To keep them competitive the school has to increase the cost of tuition from year to year.

“Our tuition rises four to five percent per year. That’s been our average over the last five years and that’s a formula that ultimately creates a crisis of affordability.” Like many private schools, Solomon Schechter offers tuition assistance and payment plans, but in some cases it’s not enough.

The Education Investment Incentives Act was designed to meet the challenge created by high education costs. It is the latest in a string of bills that have been considered in Albany to address the problem, and advocates believe it has the best chance of passing both the state Senate and Assembly. It was approved in the Senate in 2011 and only now it is positioned to push through the Assembly. State Sen. George Latimer, a newly elected Democrat representing the 37th District in Westchester, was a four-term assemblyman and co-sponsored the bill in 2011. It failed to be approved in the Assembly that year, but many advocates of the bill including Latimer, hope once state legislators get past the budget hearings, they can push the bill through.

“This bill is a good step, but it’s not a solution for schools in stressed conditions,” Latimer said. “It starts the process.”

The process of coming up with a viable solution to the crisis has been long. The bill that was introduced in February 2011 and is now in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee had predecessors over the last decade that didn’t make it.

The intent of the bill is to increase individual and corporate donations for education through the enhancement of longstanding tax benefits provided under current law by creating a new education tax credit.

“It is probably our most important proposal that we’re advocating,” Cultrara said.

This bill provides a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit on the personal income tax and the corporate franchise tax for donations made to specific education-related entities. The bill would offer a tax credit to educators who routinely buy learning materials with their own money and it would include a scholarship up to the amount of full tuition for a private or public school.

Cultrara believes the inclusion of public schools is key selling point for the bill. “We wouldn’t have near the level of support unfortunately if it just benefitted independent and religious school students,” he said.

In the end, Spiegel said education advocates remain hopeful that their voices will be heard in Albany and lawmakers will make the big first step in keeping educational options open to all families.

“You can choose public schools, you can choose private schools and you can choose some form of parochial education,” he said. “And I think the interest is to keep the vibrancy here in this democratic system of healthy options for parents and for students wanting whatever form of education there is.”

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