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As negotiations continue, tax credits get endorsement from prominent former principal

As negotiations continue in Albany over a host of unsettled education and housing issues, an influential former New York City principal joined the last-minute lobbying push to pass a package of controversial education tax credits.

David Banks, president and CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation, said in an interview that he’s speaking out because one of the tax credits would benefit his organization, which supports a network of all-boys public schools.

“It could tip one way or the other and I just thought it was important for me, in this last hour, to put my name out there and have my voice heard on it,” said Banks, who said he had called an Assembly member whose district includes one of his schools.

Banks’ organization could benefit from the smaller portion of the tax credits that would be directed at organizations supporting public schools. But his lobbying is unexpected because of Banks’ roots in public schools as a former teacher and founding principal of two schools. Critics and budget watchdogs oppose the legislation because a majority of the bill’s provisions will direct wealthy donors’ tax dollars to benefit private schools.

Banks is the former chair of the city’s $127 million Young Men’s Initiative, a program started in 2011 that aims help address a range of social disparities facing black and Hispanic young people in New York City. He was also the founding principal of Urban Assembly’s first small high school in 1997, the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, before opening his own school, the Eagle Academy for Young Men, in 2004. The all-boys model has since spawned five more schools.

The tax credit initiative, known as Parental Choice in Education Act, is in the middle of a tangle of issues still being negotiated in Albany after the legislative sessions’ scheduled end on Wednesday. Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed the legislation, which the State Senate supports, but Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said his members are concerned that it would divert too much money from public schools.

Banks distanced himself from the aggressive lobbying efforts of the proposal’s main proponent, the Coalition for Opportunity in Education. That group has targeted Assembly members who do not support or are ambivalent about the legislation with critical mailers and robocalls, a tactic that the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday may be backfiring.

“To sell us as if we’re only concerned about ourselves and not about education, I think, is misleading,” said Assembly Member Latrice Walker, one of those lawmakers. “It’s a mischaracterization of who we are and what we represent, and that’s where a lot of my discontent is centered around.”

The bill establishes tax credits that would finance four statewide education programs. Individuals or corporations who donate to the programs would be able to subtract up to 75 percent of their contribution up to $1 million from what they owe the state in taxes. Up to $150 million in tax credits would be available in the first year.

Most of that funding, up to $120 million, would be directed toward giving low- and middle-income families tuition assistance for private schools. Up to $20 million could go to foundations like the Eagle Academy Foundation, which provides start-up funding for its new schools and professional development to school staff. Another $10 million would be set aside for district and charter school teachers to be reimbursed up to $200 each for classroom supplies they buy on their own.

Walker, whose East New York and Brownsville district has seen a big expansion of charter schools in recent year, she did not oppose providing different school options to families. But she said she still opposes the legislation if it means sending money to private schools “before we’ve made any dent to what we owe legally to the public school system” under the state’s 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement.

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