Michael Rebell, professor of law and educational practice at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said Tuesday that the well-financed campaign to enact New York’s education tax-credit legislation is “a blatant example of how money is polluting our politics.”
The comments of Rebell, co-counsel for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s landmark 2003 legal victory, followed Tax Watch’s investigation of the movement to enact a law that would take $125 million slated for New York state’s coffers, and divert it to scholarship funds for private and parochial schools. An additional $125 in tax credits would be available for donations to public schools or their foundations.
The report detailed how some of the richest Americans have made considerable contributions to set up a $4-million tax-exempt foundation, fund a political action committee with $343,000 to dole out to state legislators, and set up a lobbying operation with five firms to woo state legislators.
“This bill is an outrage,” said Rebell. “At a time when our public schools are starved for funds, legislators are considering taking from the poor to appease the policy preferences of the rich. This is a blatant example of how money is polluting our politics, and private interests think they have a right to purchase public policy.”
Westchester and Rockland county legislators are among those receiving the largest total of donations from the Educational Fund, a political action committee funded by seven wealthy individuals, including billionaires Bruce Kovner and Ira Rennert. State Sen. David Carlucci, D-New City, got $10,500 while state Sen. George Latimer, D-Rye, and state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, each received $4,000. State Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, who leads the Independent Democratic Caucus, received $6,500 while Klein’s Independent Democratic Initiative got $25,000.
Tom Carroll, president of the Foundation for Opportunity in Education, which is organizing the campaign from the Albany suburb of Latham, declined comment through the foundation’s spokesman, Bob Bellafiore. Bellafiore referred Tax Watch to Jim Cultrara, director for education at the New York State Catholic Conference and co-chairman at NYS Coalition for Independent and Religious Schools.
Cultrara said that no one has the right to purchase public policy. But he said they have to right to publicize their campaign, and do what it takes to educate legislators and the general public.
“You can try to sell your idea, and that’s exactly what we are doing, shoulder-to-shoulder with every major advocacy group,” Cultrara said. “You can’t buy public policy, but you can try to convince people. Unfortunately, money is necessary a public relations campaign.”
He called Rebell’s comments “poisonous.”
“He is characterizing the issue in a way that is poisonous,” Cultrara said. “And his comments don’t help children.”
Cultrara said that the tax-credit bill will provide a lifeline to parochial and private schools that face rising costs. Private schools education about 400,000 New York children. If private schools close, then the children must be educated by the public schools, adding to the public tax-burden, said Cultrara.
“We need to stop the bleeding at Catholic schools,” he said. “If we don’t keep these schools open and accessible and affordable, then a family will lose that option to educate their child in a setting they prefer, and the taxpayers will suffer because that family is denied the option.”
Public schools would also gain under the plan, with individuals and corporations able to give up to 75 percent of their state tax-liability to their local school or school foundation. Critics have warned that the bill would exacerbate the disparity between rich and poor schools because the wealthy will steer their state liability to schools in their wealthy communities.
One of Westchester’s poorest district, Mount Vernon, does not have a school foundation. Cultrara said it time for Mount Vernon to get one established.
“If a poor district doesn’t have a foundation, shame on them,” Cultrara said. “They should. Nothing is stopping them. Maybe this bill will spur them on to establish a foundation, so their residents can redirect their state tax liability into that community.”