The Archdiocese of New York has crafted a plan to combat declining enrollment by merging or closing several of their schools. (The New York Times reports that 30 of the 216 parish schools are targeted.) The plan is a necessary roadmap for maintaining and growing Catholic education and Catholic schools in the archdiocese. Advocates for strong, viable non-public schools should welcome Archbishop Dolan’s vision. It is a clear-eyed assessment of the success of Catholic education in New York and seeks the long-range sustainability of parish schools. It’s a truly worthy goal if we are going to have healthy, high quality education options available to New York families.
Last January, Archbishop Dolan wrote to Members of Legislature of the crisis facing Catholic schools, students and their families. He wrote of the dual burden of school taxes and tuition crushing families who have chosen the religious school option. Dolan further stated that the Archdiocese’s efforts to keep Catholic schools affordable have been hampered by the state’s failure to fully reimburse religious and independent schools for the costs incurred complying with state mandates.
The state’s failure to fully reimburse the Archdiocese, other religious and nonpublic schools is a violation of the Mandated Services Reimbursement statute (Chapter 507 of the Laws of 1974). New York State owes religious and nonpublic schools over $50 million dollars: two years of expenses for complying with the Comprehensive Attendance Policy (CAP); an accounting error by the State Education Department, costing schools an initial $15 million, remains uncorrected; the state’s obligation of 100 percent reimbursement was renounced in the 2008-09 fiscal year, making those cuts permanent rather than temporary; and imposing the MTA payroll tax on these schools while public school districts are reimbursed. Oddly, this fiscal hostility to religious and nonpublic schools coincides with the advent of Spitzer-Paterson budget proposals. As Archbishop Dolan rightly noted, “an important public trust [w]as… breached.”
During my time in the Assembly, I worked with my colleagues to amend Executive budgets that failed to honor the state’s CAP obligation under the Mandated Services Reimbursement statute and sponsored legislation exempting religious schools from the MTA payroll tax. Besides working on these issues, I drafted legislation repealing the Blaine Amendment, which prohibits state assistance to religious schools, and providing tuition assistance to families that send their children to non-public schools. I am neither shy nor quiet about my support for school choice and support for the choices made by many New York families. I strongly believe that the State is obligated to maintain the public’s trust and to fully reimburse religious and nonpublic schools for their CAP expenses. I, also, recognize the importance of a Catholic school education to so many of my constituents.
Despite the declining enrollments, many students continue obtain excellent educations at parish schools like St. Martin of Tours on Crotona Avenue and St. Joseph’s on Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx. Sister Nora, the principal at St Martin’s of Tours, enlisted my assistance to keep the school’s city-funded nurse on staff. Assembly rules precluded my effort to supplement the terrific music program at the nearby St. Joseph’s School. In hindsight, I recognize that my vigorous support for expanding public charter schools may have contributed to the decision by some families to forgo the Catholic school option. For many families wanting to provide their children with a better academic and morals-based education than that available at the neighborhood public school, the parochial school was the next best option. Sadly, the crisis facing parish schools in the New York Archdiocese is occuring just as I am leaving the Assembly. I hope other legislators will fight, as I did, for the preservation and equal treatment of Catholic and nonpublic schools. Legislators must ensure that parents have real options when deciding the appropriate educational institution for their children. And, I strongly believe, the State is obligated to support those choices.