Month Before Session Ends, Cuomo Surprises With New Tuition Aid Bill

ALBANY -

A month before the legislature heads home for the year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday sprung a repackaged $150 million education tax credit, with an added benefit of getting the money directly back to tuition paying parents.

While a similar bill failed to pass the budget in March, Cuomo administration officials say they are hopeful it will get through the Democratic-led Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate by June 17, the last day of session. They are banking on Cuomo asserting his authority in a way that was missing earlier this year, and on some new features which may attract Democratic support.

“The governor doesn’t introduce his own legislation a lot,” one official noted.

Many details have still not been worked out, but the gist of the legislation has enthused yeshivah advocates as a long-awaited aid for parents.

Agudath Israel of America enthusiastically welcomed the proposal as a “watershed moment,” especially since it gives money directly to parents.

“This is a historic development, a tremendous breakthrough for the cause for which we have been advocating for many decades,” Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudah’s executive vice president, said in a statement. “Kudos to the governor for his vision, his persistence, his political courage!”

Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, Agudah’s vice president for community affairs, noted that Agudath Israel already has a robust agenda for the final month of the legislative session, but this new proposal “immediately jumps to the top of our priority list. We will use all of our advocacy resources to support the governor on this vital game-changing initiative.”

Cuomo introduced his proposal, called the Parental Choice in Education Act, in a media blitz of appearances Tuesday on Long Island and in Buffalo, alongside Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Rabbi Dovid Kupchik of the Orthodox Union. The cardinal had been particularly harsh in expressing his disappointment in Cuomo that the previous bill had not passed.

His voice rising, Cuomo urged Catholic school parents in Buffalo to contact their legislators to make sure that this bill finally passes.

“Politicians who don’t hear what the people back home want are not politicians for long,” Cuomo said. “You have to speak up. You have to go to your assemblyman, you have to go to your senator and say, ‘We want the education tax credit passed this year.  Don’t come home without it.’”

Cuomo said last year, days before his reelection, that passing a tuition aid bill was a “matter of justice.” He bitterly disappointed yeshivah advocates when the budget passed this year without the hoped-for tax credit law.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind noted this in his statement Tuesday praising the governor for the proposal. “When EITC was excluded from the budget, many people gave up hope,” he said. “You never get anywhere by giving up.”

The bulk of Cuomo’s bill, worth $70 million, is a tax credit similar to the earned income tax credit. This gives $500 to low-income parents per child for whom they pay tuition. This goes directly to the tuition payers, with no medium of a scholarship fund or the school. The parents get the money even if they earn too little to pay taxes.

For example, a family of five children will get back $2,500 of their tuition payment when they file taxes.

“Elected officials like this better,” noted Rabbi Lefkowitz. “It attracts more Assemblymen who didn’t want to go with the education tax credit.”

The bill doesn’t replace the Education Investment Tax Credit bill passed by the Senate earlier this year; it merely adds to it. State Sen. Simcha Felder, the sponsor of that bill, said he can’t comment on Cuomo’s new bill yet.

“I can’t comment on the governor’s proposal until I review it thoroughly,” said Felder, who found out about the new legislation on Tuesday morning. “But we, tuition-paying parents, hope the governor will say unconditionally that he wants the education tax credit passed with no strings attached.”

New York has 400,000 students in nonpublic schools, or about 15 percent of all students. The private school system has been battered in recent years, with more than 75 of them closing in just the last five years.

There are two components to the bill. One provides a tax credit directly to low-income parents, and another has a 75-percent tax deduction for donors to scholarship funds.

There is $70 million put aside to provide credits specifically to families of nonpublic school students. Families with incomes below $60,000 per year would qualify for up to $500 per student for tuition expenses.

This is expected to benefit about 140,000 children — or 82,000 families — across the state.

Another portion provides $50 million in tax credits for donors who support scholarships for low-income, nonpublic school students. It also provides $20 million in credits to fund programs at public schools.

Donors to this fund can deduct 75 percent of their donation from their state tax bill. So a $100,000 donation wipes off $75,000 of the tax bill.

The final $10 million component provides a tax credit of up to $200 per public school teacher who purchases instructional materials and supplies for use in teachers’ classrooms.

“It has been proposed before,” agreed Cuomo at his Long Island event. “It failed before because the political forces in Albany that are protecting the bureaucracy don’t want to see this happen. But we’re going to work harder than ever before to get the law passed.”