hail mary

Cuomo throws support behind tax credits for private school scholarships

PHOTO: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Cardinal Timothy Dolan in Buffalo to tout a tax credit proposal that would support families afford tuition for private schools.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest proposal to expand school choice extends beyond charter schools to private and parochial schools, options that could alter the city’s complex student enrollment patterns.

Cuomo spent Tuesday with Cardinal Timothy Dolan advocating for tax credits that would finance full or partial tuition to nonpublic schools for students from less-affluent families.The proposal, a version of which was cut out of an education deal decided along with the state budget in April, is the latest effort by Cuomo to promote schools that aren’t within the traditional school system and has a better chance than ever of making it into law.

Teachers unions and many lawmakers oppose the plan, which they see a way to direct taxpayer dollars away from public schools. The Democrat-controlled Assembly has blocked the bill from coming up for a vote in both of the last two years.

But shifting political dynamics mean that the proposal could have a better chance of passing this year. Among the Assembly Democrats who supported the last version of the legislation is new Speaker Carl Heastie, who took the leadership post in January after Sheldon Silver stepped down amid a corruption scandal. Cuomo’s support indicates that the plan will be part of negotiations over extending mayoral control of New York City schools and raising the state’s charter school cap during the legislative session’s final months.

In New York City, 242,000 students attended nonpublic schools, 19 percent of the student population, according to the Independent Budget Office. But enrollment in Catholic schools has been trending downward for years.

“This would be something that would significantly help many of those schools and many of those schools are in my district,” said Queens Democrat David Weprin, a Democrat who sponsored the bill with Heastie.

The bill, which has not yet formally been introduced, would establish tax credits that would finance four statewide education programs. Individuals or corporations who donate to the programs would be able to subtract up to 75 percent of their contribution from what they owe the state in taxes. Up to $150 million in tax credits would be available in the first year.

Two of the programs would offer tax credits for donations that directly benefit public schools. Up to $37 million would go to public schools to fund a wide range of activities like after-school classes and arts enrichment. Another $10 million would be set aside for district and charter school teachers to be reimbursed up to $200 each for classroom supplies they buy on their own.

But most of the available money — $137 million — would go toward the other two programs, one of which would offer scholarships for “low-income and other students,” and the other offering $500 tuition checks for children from families earning less than $60,000. That, Cuomo and Dolan said, would help revitalize the state’s religious schools.

If the payments did lure parents who otherwise would have opted for district or charter schools, it could mean an even more complicated admissions landscape in certain low-income neighborhoods where charter and district schools already compete for students. (The number of eligible city students will depend on the volume of donations and individual tuition bills.)

The deep-pocketed supporters of the city’s Roman Catholic archdiocese have poured millions into a three-year campaign for such legislation betting that it will make a difference, though. The diocese has had to close dozens of Catholic schools over the last decade, as city figures show they lost more than one-third of their total enrollment.

Enrollment in other types of private schools, especially Jewish schools, have increased, according to the IBO. And enrollment at city charter schools has exploded over that period, increasing from 2,422 students in 2003 to 83,000 this year.

That has led some to question the motives behind Cuomo’s advocacy and to ask why struggling Catholic schools should be propped up with public dollars.

“Why is the state promoting enrollment in religious schools?” said Laura Zingmond, who works for the school review website Insideschools, an arm of The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, and a member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy. “It should be neutral on this.”

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew called the proposal “a set of tax credit schemes” that would disproportionately benefit wealthy donors. Mulgrew, de Blasio, and Chancellor Carmen Fariña have also said the state’s charter cap, which Cuomo wants to raise, should stay put.

On Monday, Cuomo reflected on his own experience attending Catholic schools in Queens  and said the legislation was meant to allow parents to choose among the widest possible array of schools for their children.

“I am a product of parochial school education – that was my parents’ choice,” Cuomo said. “I made a different choice with my three girls. We sent them to public elementary school in Westchester. It was a good public school, it was a good district, and that was the choice that I made.”

“So there is no right or wrong choice,” he said.

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

PHOTO: TN.gov
Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

an almost-deal

Albany deal appears close after Assembly passes two-year extension of mayoral control

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at a 2015 press conference with Democratic colleagues

After weeks of haggling by state lawmakers — and a day spent huddling behind closed doors — the stage is set for a possible two-year extension of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of city schools.

The Assembly passed a bill in the wee hours of Thursday morning that outlines both the extension and a number of other provisions, including the reauthorization of local taxes and the renaming of the Tappan Zee Bridge for the late Governor Mario Cuomo. Notably, it does not include sweeteners for the charter school sector, which Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has forcefully opposed.

The state Senate is expected to return for a vote Thursday afternoon, though it is not yet clear if a deal has been reached. Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, did not confirm a final agreement, but told reporters Wednesday night that negotiations were “moving in the right direction.”

According to Politico, the text of the bill was released just before 11:30 p.m. and passed the Assembly around 1 a.m., by a vote of 115-15.

The bill was passed in an “extraordinary session” called by Governor Andrew Cuomo this week after lawmakers failed to reach a deal during the regular legislative session, which ended last Wednesday. Mayoral control is set to expire Friday at midnight, an imminent deadline that’s led to a flurry of “what-ifs.”

If the Senate approves the deal, it would be a victory for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has repeatedly sought multi-year extensions but been granted only one-year reprieves. It would also allay the fears of education experts on both sides of the political aisle, who have spoken out on the need to retain mayoral control rather than returning to a decentralized system run by 32 community school boards.

Losing mayoral control “would be devastating,” wrote schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a June 19 op-ed. “If Albany lets mayoral control lapse, there will be no one accountable for progress.”

But not everyone was pleased with the way things have gone down this week. “Today’s extraordinary session produced nothing to celebrate,” wrote Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb in a statement released after the vote. “There is no victory in completing work that should have been done weeks ago. No one deserves applause for passing bills in the middle of the night out of public view.”