N.Y. May Cut Aid to Private Schools

Published April 1, 2009

New York Gov. David Paterson (D) is considering cutting $44 million allocated for religious and independent schools statewide over each of the next two years, further cutting into reimbursements for state-mandated programs.

The money is currently used to monitor student attendance, as required by the state. Though Paterson’s office says the cuts will eliminate attendance monitoring, others say it will force private schools to raise tuition at a time when most parents can’t afford it.

Private school enrollment statewide is already dropping as parents struggle with job losses, declining investment values, and other elements of the weak economy.

Money Already Spent

James Cultrara, director of education for the New York State Catholic Conference, said enrollment at some schools is down by as much as 5 percent and further declines are expected if tuitions need to be raised to cover state budget cuts.

Part of the problem, Cultrara explained, is that New York’s fiscal year ends March 31, so when changes such as these are made, schools have typically already spent the money they thought they would be reimbursed by the state.

“This is a precedent we cannot allow to stand,” Cultrara said. “This will lead to a hole in the budget each school year.”

Cultrara said he and religious school administrators are likely to continue lobbying the state not to cut the funding.

Pulling the Plug

New York has been reimbursing private schools since the mid-1970s for state-mandated programs such as monitoring attendance. Though the state sometimes fell behind during difficult budget times, it always caught up later, Cultrara said—until last year, when Paterson implemented a policy of reimbursing only 92 percent of these expenses.

“We can live with the 92 percent as long as the state recognizes that it has a liability that it needs to make up in future years,” said David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an advocacy group for Jewish Day Schools nationwide. Along with Cultrara, Zwiebel co-chairs the Coalition of Independent and Religious Schools in New York.

The schools will have to raise tuition to cover the gap because their budgets are “already very fragile,” said Cultrara. He noted New York Catholic schools and other educational institutions are suffering from reduced donations, so tuitions are already going up more than they might in better economic times. The tuition hikes will force more cash-strapped parents to send their children to public schools, he said, increasing the expense for taxpayers.

Cultrara said anything other than full reimbursement will change the program from one of reimbursement to a state aid program, raising constitutional questions.

“Funds need to be restored to a level that is commensurate with public schools,” Cultrara said.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from Illinois.