Religious schools rally for donor tax credits

Private schools are urging state lawmakers to support a bill they say would help them fund their schools through charitable donations.

The Education Investment Tax Credit bill has been passed by the state Assembly and is expected to be voted on Wednesday by the Senate. It would give greater tax benefits to school-related charitable donors, allow teachers a small tax credit for buying their own supplies and increase funding to scholarship organizations, allowing more parents to send their children to private schools.

Religious schools especially stand to benefit, and they’re rallying to push for the bill. Catholic schools, for instance, were much more prevalent in the North Country a generation ago, but they have been steadily closing as parishes struggle to keep them going. Most recently, the Catholic elementary school in AuSable Forks was shut down last summer.

Critics of the bill, who include teachers unions, say it’s simply a way to redirect scarce state funding from public schools to private schools. Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of the New York State United Teachers, called it a “fundamental and disgraceful attack” on public schools. He said lawmakers “have chosen their benefactors, hedge funders and financiers over the 97 percent of New York’s children who attend underfunded public schools.”

Ray Dora is principal of St. Bernard’s, an elementary school in Saranac Lake. At the request of the Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg, he sent a letter to his school’s parents about the bill Monday.

“The Diocese of Ogdensburg is urging parents of students in Catholic schools to contact the governor, their senator and Assembly members to include education tax credits in the state budget,” Dora told the Enterprise.

Allen Aardsma is principal of Adirondack Christian School, a Baptist school in Wilmington. He is also a supporter of the bill. Some private schools, like his, are struggling, he said.

“The staff here have taken a cut in pay,” Aardsma said. “It’s as low a cost of education we can make it here.”

Aardsma believes there is a stereotype that parents who send their kids to private school are wealthy.

“My personal opinion is that those who choose a private education for their children many times don’t do that because they are wealthy,” he said. “Many of these people are poor. It’s a sacrifice for them. They go without other things … for their children.”

Aardsma said the way the state currently handles funding for public schools is unfair.

“All of these people who are sending their children here are still paying school taxes to support the public school system,” he said. “In a sense they are paying twice. and I don’t think that’s fair.

“Everyone should have a choice to send their child to the school they want to.”

The Rev. John Yonkovig, pastor of St. Agnes Catholic church and school in Lake Placid, said the tax credits will help all the state’s schools and teachers, public and private.

“The state is giving tax credits to many established businesses and new entrepreneurs,” he wrote in an email. “Certainly tax credits to parents and teachers to help all schools has to be as equally important as business ventures.”

Yonkovig said this vote will prove whether or not New York leaders support all forms of education.

“Our political leaders speak of the priority of a solid education for all New York students,” he wrote. “Their vote on Education Tax Credits will show clearly if they are committed to ALL students.”

Sister Jennifer Votraw, chancellor of the Diocese in Ogdensburg, said the bill would be very beneficial to Catholic schools.

“It sure can’t hurt,” she said. “It’s one of the few times that a tax credit might go through to benefit our parents.

“Interestingly enough, it benefits the public and the private schools,” she added. “The tax credits will generate additional funds to help families pay tuition and get teacher credits for buying supplies. The resources for public schools would increase as well as the non-public schools.”

Votraw was particularly hopeful about the scholarship portion of the bill, which she said could help private schools increase their enrollment.

“If a parent says, ‘I’d like to send my child to Catholic school, but I can’t afford it,’ this might make it possible to apply for a scholarship that might not be available,” Votraw said.