WINDSOR TERRACE — By devoting several minutes of his State of Union address on Feb. 4 to school choice, President Donald Trump put the topic in the national spotlight.
It’s an issue that Catholic educators care deeply about, because any government policy that supports school choice could make Catholic schools affordable for many more parents, advocates say.
In New York state, school choice legislation has traditionally faced an uphill battle because of the “tight grip of the public school teachers’ unions,” Dennis Poust, Director of Communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, said.
“The result is more than 300 Catholic schools have closed across New York in the last 30 years,” Poust remarked.
“More than 80 have closed in the last eight years. It’s important to note that no Catholic school in the state has ever closed due to academic failure, which is not a claim that the public or charter school communities can make. Nor have they closed due to lack of interest on the part of parents,” he said.
“Our Catholic school families save taxpayers some $5 billion each and every year. If you extend that to all religious and independent school families, the savings grow to about $8 billion,” Poust added.
Poust got those numbers by multiplying the average amount New York state spends for each pupil in public schools by the number of students in Catholic schools in the state.
John Notaro, executive director for the Catholic Foundation for Brooklyn and Queens/Futures in Education, said that the foundation receives 7,000 applications for financial aid for Catholic schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn each year.
“Sadly, we have to turn many families away due to insufficient funding,” Notaro said. “Rising living expenses and rising tuition costs lead many families to deny the opportunity of a Catholic education for their children that they desire.
“There is an unfairness in the current system. Taxpayers pay into an educational system that may not offer the best opportunity for their children,” he added.
“Our Brooklyn and Queens Catholic schools educate at less than half the cost per student as NYC public schools, saving taxpayers over $600 million per year. Yet, there is no financial relief for families struggling to pay the tuition.”
Opponents of school choice argue that using public funds to support private or parochial schools would undermine public schools by diverting money from those schools. School choice “defunds and destabilizes” public education, the American Federation of Teachers said in a statement.
In the State of the Union, Trump called on Congress to pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunities Act, saying that “no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”
The act would offer tax credits for donations made to a scholarship fund, which could be used to help families pay for tuition or other educational expenses at the school of their choice.
“The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream,” Trump said. “Yet, for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.”
Currently, 18 states have school choice programs in the form of opportunity scholarships that allow donors to give to a scholarship fund for children in need and receive a tax credit. New York is not one of them.
Poust said that access to scholarships “levels the playing field,” especially for inner-city children where public school “failure rates tend to be the highest.”
“As the cost of educating students has risen, the price that our schools must charge to families has put Catholic education out of reach for many. This is a tragedy, as our Catholic schools have produced so many leaders in business, government, the arts and every level of society,” he said.