"Academic Credit: Tax proposals are fair and equitable"

Posted on March 12, 2006 In Blog

Academic Credit: Tax proposals are fair and equitable
By Mark Bane and Howie Beigelman
Albany Times Union, Sunday, March 12, 2006

They came from every corner of the state, weathering a cold Albany afternoon to give a simple message to their elected officials. Several thousand students, parents and other concerned New Yorkers stood outside the Capitol on Feb. 14 and they said: Support education tax credits and pass them now.

Gov. George Pataki has proposed a modest, but very beneficial plan helping parents in poorly performing school districts better educate their children a $500 tax credit for families with incomes less than $75,000 to offset parents’ educational costs. Families with incomes between $75,000 and $90,000 could get a smaller credit.

Sen. Martin Golden, R-Brooklyn, and Assemblyman Vito Lopez, D-Brooklyn, have introduced a slightly more generous version of this in bills that would give a credit of as much as $3,500, depending upon family income.

In New York, public school parents bear the lion’s share of educational costs, paying school taxes while paying out of pocket for tutoring, enrichment, etc. Parents of students enrolled in nonpublic schools, less than one-fifth of all students statewide, could also benefit marginally from this tax credit, getting a break in their crushing financial burden.

Parents should rejoice. Political star aligning like this happens well, almost never. These proposals are as fair and equitable as government gets.

Public school parents are able to help their kids. Public schools get the taxes paid by private school parents who choose, for academic or other reasons, not to use public schools. Those parents, while paying thousands in taxes for schools they don’t use (a boon to education coffers) get a modest tax break, far less than what Albany and local governments shell out to educate each child except theirs in public school. That cost, about $14,000 a year, like the state’s motto, Excelsior goes ever higher. A few hundred dollars under the governor’s proposal or up to a few thousand under Golden-Lopez leaves our public treasury far better off than taxpayers.

The fairness and equity of education tax credits is why a bipartisan who’s who of New York’s elected officials support them. Besides the governor, that includes every announced candidate to succeed him. Democrat Eliot Spitzer, currently New York’s top lawyer, who we assume knows about constitutions and establishment of religion clauses, supports the credits. His challenger, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, hails them as “very clever.” Republican candidates Randy Daniels, John Faso, and Bill Weld all support tax credits.

Some never thought to see Daniels, Faso, Spitzer, Suozzi and Weld in the same sentence, let alone on the same policy page. They are liberal, moderate and conservative; Catholic, Jew, Protestant; upstate, downstate; and city-livers and suburbanites.

Given the statewide, nonsectarian, nonideological and nonpartisan support, opponents of tax credits are forced to cry “vouchers,” hoping, perhaps for constitutional bogeymen to scare away support. But no such ghosts have appeared, because, even dead justices know, tax credits aren’t vouchers. And every living jurist knows tax credits occupy the firmest constitutional ground. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by then-Justice William Rehnquist and joined by Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justices Byron White, Lewis Powell and Sandra Day O’Connor, found Minnesota’s educational tax deduction (Minnesota has both a credit and deduction the deduction in place since 1955) constitutional.

In 1999, the court, under Chief Justice Rehnquist, declined to review the constitutionality of Arizona’s educational tax credit, upheld by that state’s highest court.

Not only are tax credits constitutional, they’re smart policy. In not one state in the union not one where credits exist have public schools been harmed. In not one has there been a mass exodus from the schools. Public schools haven’t closed. Of the litany of supposed horrors opponents warned, not one happened.

To the contrary, given the predominance of public education, it is precisely public school parents and students who benefit most from these programs.

Parents know best their child’s needs. Schools sometimes can’t meet that need. Tutors, test preparation or other programs and opportunities can assure a child always has future opportunities.

Now that the governor and each potential successor are on board, let the Senate and Assembly join.

These modest means are to very great ends. Hopefully Mayor Richard Daley was right, saying good politics means good governing. New York’s children deserve no less.

Mark Bane is chairman of the Public Affairs Commission of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Howie Beigelman is the union’s deputy director of public policy.