By Annette Hinkle
In recent years, the recession has taken a heavy toll on many businesses, individuals and institutions throughout the state — both public and private. Along the way, New York’s schools have not been immune to the effects of the struggling economy.
In order to keep property tax increases in check, the state has instituted the two percent tax cap levy, which limits the dollar amount public schools may raise their budgets in any given year. But it’s not just the recession — educational institutions are also being effected by changing demographics as well as cost of living increases, and private schools have taken a hit too, with a number of parochial schools on Long Island closing, including Stella Maris in Sag Harbor which shut its doors at the end of the school year in 2011 after 134 years.
But a new bill introduced by the state assembly could change the way many aspects of educational programming is financed in the future — both for public and private schools.
Bill A.1826, known as the Education Investment Incentives Act, seeks to reduce the tax burden for state residents by allowing a tax credit for individual and corporate charitable giving to non-profit organizations that support educational programs and initiatives.
This could be anything from after school arts programming for public schools to scholarships for students attending private or parochial schools. As drafted, the bill would be capped at $300 million in tax credits per calendar year. It also provides the state’s teachers with an annual $75 tax credit for out-of-pocket expenses related to supplies and materials they purchase for use in their classrooms.
New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), a co-sponsor of the bill, feels at a time when both public and private schools on Long Island are feeling the pinch of the tax cap and declining enrollment, this bill goes a long way toward supplementing the ability of schools to serve their students.
“On the public school side, with the tax cap in place while we’ve been increasing funding for education for the last couple years, it’s been tough with the recession,” said Thiele. “Though a lot of the focus with this bill has been on the private schools, this can be used to augment public education.”
“The whole idea is to encourage charitable giving to education in general,” he adds.
Though the bill is expected to give a huge boost to private and Catholic schools, Thiele notes because public schools also benefit, it does not violate issues of constitutionality like school vouchers, which have come under fire parts of the country where they are used.
“People who don’t like the bill like to say it’s vouchers or supportive of parochial or private education,” says Thiele. “But this is very carefully drafted in that what it does is provide a tax credit to those making a contribution to education.”
“It’s broadly drafted, so it’s not focused on Catholic or private schools — its focused on education,” he adds. “That’s why it passes constitutional muster. It clearly supports education across the board. Why wouldn’t we want to support charitable giving to supplement whatever support we get from local tax dollars?”
Thiele explains the range of educational initiatives the Education Investment Incentives Act could support include everything from local educational foundations, like the Reutershan Trust in Sag Harbor which supports art programs at Pierson Middle/High School, to scholarship programs for students attending private schools.
“During these times every bit helps. It’s getting the private sector involved and replacing money lost through the tax cap,” said Thiele who notes that 103 of the state’s 150 assembly members have already signed onto the bill.
“Judging from the number of sponsors, it demonstrates a great deal of interest. There are few bills that have had this kind of support,” said Thiele who adds, “No money goes directly to a public or private school, it goes to not-for-profit entities that support education.”
On Long Island, one organization that would likely benefit should this bill become law is Tomorrow’s Hope Foundation, which provides scholarships for Catholic school students. Sag Harbor’s Michael Taglich is on the board of Tomorrow’s Hope, and he sees this bill — and the resulting choices in educational options it might bring — as a way of raising the bar for all students and schools in the state.
“There are 11 states that already offer educational tax credits, and they are seen as effective and popular,” notes Taglich. “This bill is critical for Catholic schools.”
For Taglich, this is an issue that hits close to home. A strong supporter of Catholic education, all four of his daughters attended Stella Maris Regional School in Sag Harbor until it closed in the face of financial and enrollment pressures. At that point, he moved his children to Our Lady of the Hamptons (OLH) in Southampton, the next closest K-8 Catholic School.
“Stella Maris didn’t close for lack of demand, but because lower and middle income people couldn’t afford the $4,000 Stella Maris was charging,” says Taglich. “That decline coincided with the recession, which hit hard out here among the working folks.”
“My frustration as a Sag Harbor resident is that we had a wonderfully effective school system that was shut down,” he explains. “We’ve had to close schools that are very efficient for lack of an extremely small amount of money and it’s hurting our society.”
Taglich explains that at Our Lady of the Hamptons, close to 20 percent of the students currently receive scholarships from Tomorrow’s Hope. But he feels should the Education Investment Incentives Act become law, it has the potential to do far more for East End students.
“Generally these are kids from lower income, or middle income families whose parents think it’s in their kids best interest to go to OLH,” says Taglich. “If approved, this bill will greatly expand the amount of help we give these people.”
“That is very good for these children and for the taxpayers.”
While there are those who worry that programs which help private schools have the potential to siphon resources away from public education, Taglich feels the focus should really be on ensuring New York State has a range of high quality schools — whether they be private or public.
“Our state and our community are attractive to the extent we have good schools that are easily accessible to our community’s children,” says Taglich. “It’s important to make these kinds of schools available to all.”
“Good, private school alternatives raise the bar for all schools,” he says. “Left wing bill, right wing bill — it’s a center bill. It already enjoys broad sponsorship by legislators who put the education of children first.”
“This bill will have a positive effect on the state and help public schools too.” He adds. “It’s not designed to be bureaucratic, it’s designed to be democratic — and help local people fund public schools.”
“This is a well designed bill because there’s something in it for everybody and in the end, society really wins by helping schools,” adds Taglich, “especially private schools.”
Thiele says the Education Investment Incentives Act will likely be included in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget when he puts it together next January, and he expects the legislation to be in place for 2015.