Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who may hold the key to a state education tax credit, sent the strongest signal yet on Tuesday that he will support the measure.
Silver said he was "sympathetic" to the proposal, but reportedly is concerned that a tax break for parents might be meaningless if private schools hike their rates or lower scholarships in response.
Following an Albany rally that drew thousands of students, parents and school administrators who support education tax credits Silver, the state’s most powerful Democrat, met with Catholic and Jewish leaders. That group included Cardinal Edward Egan and officials of the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel and the National Council of Young Israel.
Silver reportedly asked them to ensure that private schools would not ask parents who qualify for the credit to pay more. Cardinal Egan was the only one able to agreed to do so, according to one account of the meeting.
Silver spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee confirmed that the speaker "expressed some concerns" about tuition hikes but would not comment on details of the conversation.
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who said he is working closely with Silver on the tax credits issue, was not at the meeting but said he had learned that "Cardinal Egan made the commitment, but others did not make it yet."
Hikind said Silver wants the tax credit "to be something that helps and that the schools will not wipe out whatever we do in a second."
Republican Gov. George Pataki, who is not seeking re-election this year and is widely considered to be eyeing national office, has proposed a $500 tax credit for households earning less than $75,000 who live in failing school districts to be used for education expenses ranging from private tuition to test preparation or mentoring programs.
A bipartisan bill introduced in both houses of the state Legislature would grant a higher deduction amount and apply to families with larger incomes. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno supports Pataki’s proposal, making Silver’s approval the final hurdle to some form of education tax cut.
The speaker is under pressure from the United Federation of Teachers and members of his own Democratic conference not to approve the measure without first securing billions of dollars awarded to New York City schools by the state’s top court in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.
On Monday, UFT President Randi Weingarten, testifying before the City Council’s Education Committee, said the tax credit, which would cost the state about $400 million in lost revenue, would "pit parents against one another and divide communities."
Weingarten said a diverse coalition convened by state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to identify revenue sources for private schools had "developed common ground" that would be "destroyed by the governor’s proposal."
Advocates of the tax credit insist that public school families would derive about 80 percent of the benefit. Weingarten declined through a spokesperson to discuss the issue for this column.
Following the meeting with the Catholic and Jewish leaders, Silver noted that he and his children had attended parochial schools.
The Associated Press quoted him as saying "I am open to the idea of assisting parents and schools that provide [parochial and private] education as well as understanding that we have to do a better job in the public education system."
Larrabee told The Jewish Week Tuesday night that Silver "will continue to battle for the moral and legal obligation to provide sound basic education while continuing to seek a tax policy that benefits the broadest number of working families possible."
While Mayor Michael Bloomberg has indicated that his top lobbying priority is pressing Albany for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding, apparently he is supportive of the tax credit as well. In response to a query about the mayorís position, a spokeswoman referred to his Jan. 23 testimony before a joint fiscal legislative committee in Albany.
"It’s important for us to look at all the options that will improve education for our students," the mayor said at that time. "In that vein I also look forward to working with the governor and the Legislature to explore the proposed education tax credit in the executive budget. It is something that the Legislature should consider."
In a meeting last week to discuss a proposed public high school that Borough Park Jewish residents fear will be detrimental to the character of their neighborhood, both the Mayor’s Office and community leaders agreed not to comment on the issue publicly until it was resolved.
"It was a very productive meeting," said Councilman Simcha Felder.