Whether it is a presidential-campaign gambit or a serious policy proposal, New York Gov. George E. Pataki’s attempt to create a $500 education tax credit just might pass a legislature that traditionally has spurned private school choice.
Several legislators from New York City, including Democrats representing its poorest sections, have said they support Mr. Pataki’s plan, which would give a $500 credit for private school tuition and services such as tutoring and after-school programs.
“It greatly benefits many of the parents in my district,” said Assemblyman Karim Camara, a Democrat representing Crown Heights and other mostly minority communities in Brooklyn. Mr. Pataki’s proposal is especially attractive, he added, because public school parents can earn the credit for enrichment activities. “Five hundred dollars for test prep can be the difference in whether or not you can get into a specialized high school.”
Observers point to a number of reasons why opponents of the tax credit are entertaining Mr. Pataki’s proposal.
For one, frustration is mounting because the state hasn’t intervened to improve New York City’s schools. In addition, the state has reached its cap on the number of charter schools allowed, which means parents have fewer options to their regular public schools.
“There’s rising support in the minority community, both for vouchers and charter schools,” said Sol Stern, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York City-based think tank that supports school choice. “It’s not considered heresy that you’re abandoning public schools and siding with the far right. All of these accusations have less impact now.”
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in this year’s gubernatorial race, has called the education tax credits “a promising approach.” Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver, also a Democrat, has said he would consider the tax credits.
But Democrats who oppose channeling public money to private schools said they are confident that their party will succeed in rejecting the tax credits.
Even with a “handful of individuals” in the legislature supporting the tax-credit plan introduced as part of the governor’s budget, “the majority of people [in the party] will see it for what it is and oppose it,” said Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, a Democrat who represents Greenwich Village and other neighborhoods in lower Manhattan.
Credit, Not Vouchers
In his Jan. 17 budget speech to the legislature, Mr. Pataki, a Republican who is considering a run for his party’s presidential nomination in 2008, proposed that parents be given a $500 tax credit to reimburse them for educational expenses such as private school tuition, after-school programs, and tutoring.
Parents who live in districts with at least one underperforming school would be eligible for the tax credit, said John P. Sweeney, a spokesman for the state budget office. Schools would be designated as underperforming if they fail to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for two or more years. Families with incomes above $90,000 could not receive the credit, he said.
Democrats are usually joined by teachers’ unions—one of the most powerful players in the Democratic coalition—in dismissing such school choice proposals out of hand. Indeed, the United Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Teachers’ affiliate representing 140,000 New York City teachers, immediately announced its opposition to the proposal.
In a Jan. 17 statement, UFT President Randi Weingarten called the governor’s budget “an opportunistic, anti-education budget that panders in the worst way.”
Ms. Weingarten and others criticized Mr. Pataki for proposing the tax credit while failing to come up with the money needed to settle a long-running school finance suit against the state.
Last year, a trial court judge ordered the state to ensure that the city’s K-12 budget increase by $5.6 billion a year—or 44 percent—to comply with an order from the state’s highest court. The state has appealed that order in the 13-year-old case, Campaign for Fiscal Equity (“Judge Orders Billions for Schools in N.Y.C.,” Feb. 23, 2005.)
“The governor has never really addressed making a down payment [on that order] and has not structured a plan to address that,” Ms. Glick said.
But frustration among New York City Democrats over the lack of progress in remedying the CFE case may be part of their motivation for considering the tax credit, Mr. Stern and Ms. Glick agreed.
In January, for example, an African-American mother from Queens filed a motion to intervene in the CFE case and receive tuition to send two of her children to private schools because the city has failed to provide them with an adequate education.
Moreover, parents’ options have been limited because the state has reached its cap of 100 charter schools.
Mr. Pataki has proposed raising that cap to 250 charter schools.
Many observers added that Mr. Pataki proposed the school choice initiative in an effort to appeal to conservative Republicans, who play an important role in selecting the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
With the governor trying to “burnish his credentials” with conservatives, Mr. Stern said, he will probably fight hard for the tax credits. That combined with support among Democratic leaders means the proposal has a “shot” at becoming law, Mr. Stern said.