Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal to curtail aid to Catholic schools has prompted a backlash from New York’s Catholic community, with leaders portraying the cuts as an unwarranted addition to already dire financial troubles.
New York State partially reimburses Catholic schools for state-mandated measures such as standardized testing, and Cuomo’s budget would reduce reimbursements to private schools by 8%. Catholic educators say the loss will exacerbate debts they have incurred from the state, which already owes Catholic schools some $260 million in reimbursements.
“That’s significant when you consider that our schools operate on very thin margins, and it’s very easy to have a significant reversal,” said Monseigneur Kieran Harrington of the Brooklyn Diocese.
Catholic educators also maintain that they are being forced to endure deeper cuts despite having less resources than their public school counterparts. The percentage decrease in public school funding stands at 7.3% compared to 8% for nonprivate schools. Unlike Catholic schools, public schools are reimbursed for MTA payroll taxes.
“Public schools have reserve funds and tax levy authority that we do not have, and our only recourse is to turn to the parents in the form of tuition increases,” said New York State Catholic Conference Education Director Jim Cultrara. “[The parents] are already overburdened in paying taxes to support public schools in addition to tuition to support their kids.”
Catholic schools are caught in a vicious cycle in which declining enrollment inflates per-pupil costs, which leads enrollment to dip further when schools are forced to raise tuition. The archdiocese of New York recently announced that it would be closing 27 schools, 13 of them in New York City. For many parents, charter schools represent a less costly alternative, and Cultrara said government support for charters has effectively hastened the decline of Catholic schools.
“Certainly legislators have supported the growth of charter schools without any commensurate support for parents who want to choose a religious or an independent school, and they simply ignore the issues of justice and fairness and equality from a fiscal point of view alone,” Cultrara said. “It’s costing the state virtually nothing for a child to be educated in a religious school, and it’s costing the state thousands and thousands per child when that child goes to a charter school.”
Catholic leaders have been putting pressure on Albany to ease the pain. Cultrara has been meeting with lawmakers regularly. Harrington said that church figures throughout New York took advantage of Catholic Schools Week, the last week in January, to encourage parishioners to contact their elected representatives. Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, will testify in Albany next week.
The increasing cost of Catholic schools is forcing families to consider carefully whether the tuition is worth the investment, according to John Convey, a professor education at Catholic University.
“Now parents are saying ‘I can’t afford to send my children to high school but I’d like to be able to send them to a private college,’” Convey said. “I think families are looking down the road and making choices.”
In some cases, this puts more pressure on an overburdened New York school system as former Catholic school students enter public schools and drive up per-pupil costs. Former assemblyman Michael Benjamin, who was a strong advocate of government support for school choice, said that viable alternatives to public schools help spread the burden of paying for education.
“Parochial schools can act as a safety valve for public schools, which are facing very significant issues of overcrowding,” said Benjamin.
But the choice may not simply be between a New York City Catholic school and a nearby public or charter school. Convey pointed to a wider demographic trend, with families migrating from the city to the suburbs, or from traditional East Coast Catholic enclaves to the South and the Southwest. Harrington said that, in exit interviews with students leaving Catholic schools in the Brooklyn Diocese, the students are rarely swapping for a neighborhood public school — instead, they are moving.
“We’re essential to the integrity of neighborhoods throughout the city of New York,” Harrington said. “If people don’t have access to our schools they’re moving, they’re going somewhere else.”