Featherstone: Keep taxpayer funds out of religious education
The day after Hakeem Jeffries won last June's Democratic primary, assured of winning his election for Congress, the popular Brooklyn politician said the tax code should be used to relieve families of the "crushing burden" of religious education, The Local news website reported.
New York is largely a Democratic city, but sometimes we'll fall for a right-wing message wrapped in the friendly language of social justice and delivered by a righteous messenger. Jeffries is such an emissary: an advocate for living wages and a critic of stop and frisk. He's not alone in his call to use taxpayer dollars for religious education. A proposal in the State Assembly, sponsored by Democratic Staten Island Assemb. Michael Cusick, would allow tax credits for charitable contributions to scholarship programs at religious schools. A similar bill has already passed the State Senate.
New Yorkers should stay skeptical on this one.
Yesterday, thousands of Catholic politicians, schoolteachers and kids rallied in Buffalo to support this plan, called the Education Investment Tax Credit Bill. Besides religious groups, other supporters even include some unions: several police and, in the city, a firefighters organization.
These groups aren't typically associated with attacks on the public sector. But the legislation is modeled on a blueprint created by a far-right organization funded by corporations: the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been working to decimate public services and break public employee unions nationwide.
Many states allow public funding for religious schools through vouchers for student tuition. While we're a long way from Louisiana, where taxpayers fund schools that teach the Earth is younger than 10,000 years old, New York already funds religious education by providing free yellow bus service to children attending religious schools.
Separation of church and state is a cherished principle, even if some of our liberal politicians and unions are choosing to blow it off. Besides, public schools need those public funds -- and there's no extra money.
For now, at least, Albany agrees on the latter point. The bill as proposed in the Assembly would cost a quarter of a billion dollars, a giveaway that didn't make it into the budget this year. Let's make sure it never does.
Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.