Expatriate Owl

A politically-incorrect perspective that does not necessarily tow the party line, on various matters including but not limited to taxation, academia, government and religion.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Note the Asterisk *

Now that Transport Workers Union Local 100 has rejected, by seven (7) votes, the agreement hammered out by its representatives and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, we all know the likely subject the front page headlines in the New York tabloids. All of this blog's prior comments on the TWU - MTA dispute are still operative, and further comments will be posted if and when warranted.

Other bloggers and commentators will surely give good analyses of this latest TWU/MTA development and its implications for Pataki, Bloomberg, Spitzer, Kalikow, Toussaint and New York. My only observation at this time is that the New York State tuition tax credit story has now been, at least to some extent, pre-empted by the TWU vote and its consequences.

As a parent who has chosen to send his child to a non-public school (and who pays full freight tuition in connection with the same), I am, of course, very concerned about the skyrocketing costs of education. And though my perspective is primarily upon Jewish education, there are other groups of parents who have also chosen alternatives to the public school system (and who are paying accordingly) whose interests and concerns are not all that incompatible with mine.

As a background, there are three factors that collectively and synergistically impact and complicate the situation in New York with respect to any issues regarding school education funding:

(1) A very big and influential teacher's labor union, the New York State United Teachers and its affiliates (as further detailed and disclosed in my 18 December 2005 posting, I am a member of one of those NYSUT affiliated unions in connection with my teaching gig at a New York public educational institution);

(2) Significant numbers of New York school children attend religious-oriented nonpublic schools, including but not limited to the Catholic schools and Jewish yeshivas and religious day schools; and

(3) Article 11, Section 3 of the New York State Constitution prohibits the use of state money or credit "in aid or maintenance, other than for examination or inspection, of any school or institution of learning wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine is taught." This is known as the Blaine Amendment, a provision born of 19th Century anti-Catholic bigotry and inserted into the Constitutions of several states, including New York, at the instigation of Maine Congresscritter and POTUS wannabe James G. Blaine, after his own attempt to amend the United States Constitution failed.

Immediately before this TWU vote story broke, New York Attorney General and Governor wannabe Eliot Spitzer did a little bit of a backpedal on his views regarding Governor Pataki's tuition tax credit proposals. In light of the Blaine Amendment, Spitzer had questioned the legality of Pataki's budget proposals regarding tuition tax credits. Many non-public school parents (including this one) have long distrusted Spitzer on the issue, and his comments accordingly drew the flak.

There is a rally for tuition tax credits scheduled for 14 February 2006 in Albany. Scheduling conflicts preclude my personal attendance. Those who cannot personally attend can still write or call or e-mail Governor Pataki and Attorney General Spitzer to remind them of their support for tuition tax credits.

Given our current system in New York and America, I support* Pataki's tuition tax credit proposals. You will note that this support is marked with an asterisk. I shall now explain the asterisk.

I do not per se oppose public schools, but the public schools as we know them today are not the public schools I attended. And while my own public school experience was not without its very significant flaws and adversities, the environment was more conducive to good education than that now found in the typical public school. I shall not now get into issues of curriculum, but I will discuss issues of finance.

Approximately 65% of my real estate tax bill is for the local school district. In New York, the school district provides the textbooks in the non-religious subjects to non-public school students. Other than that, I receive nothing in return for the school taxes I pay. So, in addition to paying non-public school tuition, I also subsidize quite heavily the education of the public school kids. My next door neighbors, whose children have long since graduated from the public schools, married and moved out, likewise subsidize a school system which no longer confers a direct benefit upon them.

Do I oppose public tax revenues going towards the education of my neighbors' children? Not per se, but why can't they control the costs? Take athletics, for example. My son's school, while not totally devoid of athletics, has foregone much of the athletic facilities and programs to be found in public schools. Much of the acreage of the local high school near my home consists of ballfields and similar athletic facilities. This is land that is (A) off the tax rolls, and (B) costs public money to maintain and level the playing fields. Other school districts have even more extensive athletic facilities. I do not oppose athletics in the schools (and was a high school jock myself), but must question the priority that has been placed on athletics by society in general and our schools in particular. What purpose is served by having top-of-the-line athletic equipment and facilities as opposed to just the basics? If it is to provide a source for the major leagues, then shouldn't major league baseball and the NHL and the NFL be kicking into the schools' athletic budgets? Athletics is, to be sure, a worthy component of an educational program because, using the principles of competition, brings out excellence.

Why is the cost of education so high? The answer is that whenever the school district has a budgetary shortfall they can always raise the taxes (I shall not get into the school budget voter approval process in New York, except to say that even when a school budget is rejected by the voters the school taxes still go up). There is no meaningful incentive to control costs! There is no competition!

One reason for the decline of the public schools is that each public school district enjoys a legal monopoly in its geographical territory. Any competition with the public school system is not done on a level playing field. But whenever some non-public school does manage to rival a public school in spite of that monopoly, the public school usually improves.

The public schools need competition in order to excel. Moreover, if the purpose of public schools is to have a well-educated population, then there is no reason why that goal ought not be achieved with the help of the non-public schools, whose ability to deliver on that score has long been established.

And so, I support Governor Pataki's proposal for tuition tax credits. Understand, however, that there is much, much more needed in order to adequately address the condition of education in America, Jewish or otherwise.


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