Published Online: February 4, 2010

In Recession, R.I. Debates Helping Private Schools

Educators are criticizing Gov. Don Carcieri's plan to expand tax credits for businesses that support private school scholarships while the Republican wants to cut funding for public schools to close a ballooning state deficit.

The budget that Carcieri gave lawmakers this week would expand a four-year-old program so it could offer $2 million in tax credits to companies that give money to Roman Catholic, Jewish and independent schools across the state. The credits are now capped at $1 million annually.

"If he wants to give money to people who can afford to send their kids to private schools, he should not use my tax money to do that," said Hans Dellith, interim superintendent of Pawtucket schools, an urban district that would lose $3.4 million under the governor's proposal.

Carcieri says some of the funding cuts to public schools would be offset by a proposal to reduce the benefits in teacher pensions, driving down costs. He said the tax credits are justified since taxpayers would face greater costs if students in private and religious schools attended public school districts.

"That's a small incentive that is actually encouraging other types of schooling," Carcieri said at a Statehouse news conference Tuesday. "I say, 'God bless them,' because if we had all those youngsters in those public schools, it would cost us tens of millions of dollars."

Lawmakers approved the credit in 2006 at the urging of Roman Catholic leaders and others who said it would offer poor families more choices in education. It allows a company to receive a tax credit equal to 90 percent of their donation until reaching a maximum $100,000 annual credit.

The donations offset tuition costs for students from low-income families; the threshold for a family of four is about $55,000 annually.

Dan Corley, president of the Rhode Island Scholarship Alliance, which supports the program, said there's a waiting list of companies that want to give.

"This program is a win for businesses, a win for economically disadvantaged children and families and a win for the state," he said in a statement.

During the current academic year, the funding went to 511 students, about 79 percent of whom attend Catholic schools. Rhode Island is the most heavily Catholic state in the country.

"We believe that public education is important, but we don't believe that private education should be the poor, lost cousin shoved in the closet," said the Rev. Bernard Healey, a lobbyist for the Diocese of Providence.

Rhode Island's public schools face significant problems, including standardized test scores that lag the region. Scores released Wednesday showed 27 percent of eleventh graders were proficient in math, 55 percent were proficient in writing and 73 percent were proficient in reading.

Meanwhile, a bruising recession has pushed unemployment to nearly 13 percent, severely curtailing the state's tax income as people lose their paychecks and cut back on purchases that boost sales tax collections. Municipal budget trouble combined with state funding cuts have caused schools to lay off teachers, cut sports teams, choirs and yearbook and science clubs.

Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said his union originally opposed the tax credit and could not understand why Carcieri wants to expand it now.

"In this environment, taking another million dollars from the public schools ... he's really not helping in a tough time," Walsh said. "He's being awfully charitable with the public's money while he's preaching austerity everywhere else."

Democrats hold a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly and have not yet debated Carcieri's budget plan.

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