July 10, 2013
Private schools would get a promotion in Anthony Weiner’s Department of Education if he’s elected mayor.
A headlining proposal of Weiner’s plan to save Catholic schools would be to elevate the head of the office that administers taxpayer-funded services to non-public schools to a cabinet position, “giving them essentially a seat at the table at the highest realm,” the former congressman said today at a press conference where he unveiled his plans.
Right now, the “Non-Public Schools Unit” is a relatively obscure office within the city’s education department, falling under the Division of Operations. It distributes funds and services to which private schools are legally entitled under state and federal law. These include funding for textbooks and technology, and in-school nurses.
In all, non-public schools, including charter schools, received $260 million for those services last year, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office.
But Weiner said non-public schools aren’t taking full advantage of the funding streams they’re entitled to. To make it easier, Weiner is proposing to digitize the loan process so schools could submit applications online. He said he’d also match the state’s dollars with city money to provide additional technology for non-public schools.
Weiner has made expanding school choice a signature priority of his education platform, a position that polls well with New Yorkers. A Zogby poll commissioned by the right-leaning Manhattan institute found that 87 percent of people supported expanding options, a rate that is even higher for African Americans and parents.
“If you’re a student, no matter what type of school you’re in — a yeshiva, a parochial school, a charter school — you’re entitled under the law to certain specific services that go into your education,” Weiner said, speaking today outside the Blessed Sacrament School in the Bronx, which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor attended and which was recently shuttered.
Facing rising costs, Catholic schools have been in a slow and steady demise for more than a decade, with more than 100 schools closing since 2000 and citywide enrollment dropping by 60,000 students.
Weiner said that the financial distress has been ignored — and even exacerbated — by the Bloomberg administration, which he said has too eagerly seized upon the empty school space for its own use.
“I think to some degree, the Department of Education has seen [these] as opportunities: ‘Maybe this will mean more space that we can go into and use for a school of our own,’” Weiner said.
A department spokeswoman, Erin Hughes, did not respond directly to Weiner’s criticism. But she said the department distributes funds “appropriately” under federal law and had expanded the number of private schools approved to serve students with disabilities whom the city cannot serve.
Weiner said the Archdiocese of New York, which operates Catholic schools, also deserved some of the blame for too slowly responding to rising school costs.
He said his proposals wouldn’t violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state because they all fell into dedicated public funding streams that are just being underused. But he said private schools are important enough to the ”lifeblood” of New York City that government should give it more attention.
“When a parish school closes, a little bit of our soul goes along with it,” Weiner said.
Weiner said he does not oppose seeing the state’s tax laws revised to incentivize individual donations to Catholic schools, something that legislators in Albany have been considering. “I’m not an ideologue on the idea of using the tax code to incentivize help for parochial schools,’” he said.
But Weiner stopped short of endorsing vouchers, which are opposed by unions and progressive groups who see them as a threat to the public education system and an underhanded attempt to hurt public sector teachers unions.
“I’m not suggesting vouchers or anything like that,” he said.