"Respect parent choice." "Our vote counts." "Give kids a choice."
A dozen educators, parents and students marched around the office of New York State Assemblymember Sean Ryan on May 20 chanting those slogans and carrying signs to let him know that as voters, they wanted him to pass the Parental Choice in Education Act.
The Parental Choice in Education Act will support and protect alternative school options for parents and students across New York state. The act provides for $150 million in education tax credits annually that will provide tax credits to low-income families who send their children to nonpublic schools, scholarships to low- and middle-income students to attend either a public school outside of their district or a nonpublic school, offer incentives to public schools for enhanced educational programming (like after school programs), and give tax credits to public school teachers for the purchase of supplies.
Ryan was in Albany during the rally, but his chief of staff took time to hear the group and promised to report back to Ryan.
"We're very interested in having Assemblyman Ryan support the education investment tax credit bill," said Christian Riso, assistant superintendent of government programs for the diocesan Office of Catholic Education. "When the last education budget came out there was a lot of support for public schools, which was wonderful, as they should be supported, but we noticed there wasn't really anything for families that were struggling with tuition. They pay a lot of tuition and they pay their taxes, but it's difficult to afford both of those things. Luckily, they have the ability to pick which school they can go to, and they're choosing, in our case, Catholic schools, but they also go to many other non-public schools. We were hoping there was some way they could get assistance. By passing this bill, it would give more scholarships to families that just can't afford it, but it's the choice they would like to make."
In a letter to Bishop Richard J. Malone, Ryan called the education investment tax credit "flawed," citing that it "leaves out many safeguards which would ensure that it could be beneficial to students here in Western New York."
In the letter Ryan goes on to say that the tax credit could favor schools in New York City, may help people other than middle- and low-income families, and may support schools that teach racial and religious prejudice.
Ryan is the one Democrat in Western New York who opposes the bill.
"The governor is on board with this as you saw this week," Sister Carol Cimino, SSJ, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese, told Ryan's chief of staff. "The senate is on board with this. And the majority of democrats in the Assembly are on board with this. We just need for this to be brought to the floor of the Assembly or included in the final end-of-year legislation."
Michele Hoff, a mother of three, saw her youngest son lose some friends he made in school because their parents could not afford to continue sending their kids to a Catholic school.
"Families should have a choice of where they send their kids to school. That's real important. The problem is if they can't afford it, then there really isn't a choice. That's what's disheartening for a lot of people," Hoff said.
Following the meeting, members of the diocesan Department of Catholic Education spoke to the media on the topic of the Parental Choice in Education Act.
"We are very much behind this bill," said Riso. "If it is passed, it will allow students who are in Catholic schools to get something from the taxes that they pay. It will encourage donors to give money for the benefit of students who can't afford Catholic schools. We're asking them to make that concession, to allow for more donations. It never brings any tax dollars in. That's why it never comes out of the budget. So it would be ideal. It would encourage people to give to public schools. It encourages people to give to scholarship organizations so the kids can afford non-public schools. We think it's the perfect bill because it helps everybody in education."