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LI interfaith coalition pushes for tuition relief

Ronit Rogoszinski, of West Hempstead, and her daughter,

Ronit Rogoszinski, of West Hempstead, and her daughter, Yael, 14, are coming together to demand relief from having to pay both public school taxes and tuition for private religious schools. (Oct. 15, 2013) Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

A growing coalition of Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran and Muslim organizations and families who say paying public school taxes and tuition for private religious schools is a burden is seeking relief on the tuition end.

Several hundred people are expected to gather at a Nassau County Jewish school Thursday night to meet with state politicians and ask for help in the form of tax credits or other assistance.

"These families are under enormous financial pressure," said James Cultrara, director for education at the New York State Catholic Conference. "They are making a sacrifice to provide a religious or independent education for their own children, and they need relief."

The groups are focusing their efforts on the proposed Education Investment Tax Credit legislation in Albany, which could provide $300 million in assistance a year. Half would go to New York State religious and independent schools, and the rest to public schools, Cultrara said.

The money is not a tuition voucher, but rather a means of allowing people to divert up to 75 percent of their state income tax directly to public schools or foundations that support them, or in the case of private schools, indirectly to scholarship organizations, he said. That money would then help families pay tuition.

"It's a way for lawmakers to provide indirect support to the tuition-paying families without getting bogged down into the politics of vouchers," said Cultrara, who is also co-chairman of the New York State Coalition for Religious and Independent Schools.

The legislation has been approved twice previously by the State Senate, and proponents are hopeful both the Senate and Assembly will pass it next year. Twelve states have passed similar legislation, Cultrara said.

Tonight's meeting at the Schechter School of Long Island in Williston Park is expected to attract at least seven members of the Senate and Assembly from Long Island, along with representatives of a diverse group of religious schools, including the Crescent School in Hempstead, one of three full-time Islamic schools on the Island.

Sister Joanne Callahan, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, said rising tuition costs were one of the main reasons the diocese had to close six grammar schools last year amid declining enrollment.

"Parents who look at the rising cost of taxes and tuition -- some of them just can't afford it anymore," she said.

Ronit Rogoszinski, a West Hempstead financial adviser, said tuition for two of her children to attend Schechter is the family's biggest expense after their mortgage.

"The money is a huge amount of our income," she said, adding that she's looking for some relief, not "a free ride."Darcy Hirsh, of the Jewish organization UJA-Federation of New York, said the coalition has expanded the types of religious groups involved because "we wanted this to be a true interfaith effort."

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