by Robert Weiner
NJN Staff Writer
A report commissioned by former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and strongly endorsed by his successor, Republican Chris Christie, is urging greater state aid to New Jersey’s private and parochial schools.
Its findings, released by Christie’s office on July 20, include increased state aid for school transportation, nursing services, technology programs, and special education classes.
Those recommendations are being hailed by leaders of the state’s Jewish day schools, with an estimated total enrollment of 29,000 children.
“For too long, families in New Jersey’s nonpublic schools, including Jewish day schools and yeshivas, have been treated as stepchildren,” said the Orthodox Union’s managing director, Rabbi Steven Burg, in a press release. “This report offers clear, affordable, and common sense recommendations to change that and to ensure that every student in New Jersey gets the education they deserve.”
The report comes as day schools face the fallout from the recession, which saw declining enrollments and increased requests for tuition assistance.
The commission found that nearly 30,000 students attending Catholic, Jewish, and non-sectarian private school enrollment transferred to public schools between 2004 and 2009. It estimated that the additional influx of students cost an added $430 million a year in public school aid.
“It would be far cheaper for taxpayers to provide scholarship assistance to working families so they could once again consider private school options for their children,” according to the report.
The commission said “nonpublic schools save New Jersey residents more than $2.7 billion annually in operating costs while providing parents and students with expanded educational options for their children.”
The commission also endorsed legislation intended to avoid legal challenges over church-state separation issues. The New Jersey Opportunity Scholarship Act, which is making its way through the legislature, would allow corporations to provide private school scholarships in exchange for state tax credits.
On critic of the legislation is Bruce Baker, an associate professor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education in New Brunswick.
“Tuition tax credits won’t help most parents of children already in private Jewish schools, because most wouldn’t qualify for the vouchers because their income is greater than 250 percent of the poverty level,” he said.
Baker acknowledged that transportation subsidies “are probably helpful to many parents in Jewish schools in New Jersey. The transportation reimbursement from local districts certainly offsets a portion of the tuition cost of sending a child to private school.”
‘An awful lot of money’
Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz, associate dean of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, estimated that about 50 percent of the 850 students enrolled in his K-12 Orthodox day school require tuition assistance.
“We’ve lost one or two to public schools and a few more to home schooling,” he said.
As for the commission’s recommendations, “any kind of aid and tax credits are incredibly helpful,” he said, “but I don’t know how much realistically this will help us.
“We pay an awful lot of money into property taxes and get no benefit from them.”
That argument does not impress Professor Baker.
“We are all taxed for many public goods and services such as local fire departments, police, parks, and schools. We don’t all use them all, even though we are taxed for them,” he said. “And we actually hope that we don’t have to use some of them, like the fire department. We may gain benefits even from some that we don’t use, like increased value to our property simply because it is in a town with good schools or a nice park.”
As expected, the New Jersey Education Association, the labor union representing the state’s public school teachers, is opposed to the recommendations.
“It is bad public policy and bad use of taxpayer dollars,” said NJEA spokesperson Steve Baker. “What they are saying is, ‘we need a taxpayer-funded bailout of a private industry.’ We need to make sure every student has access to a great public school and parents can choose what they choose. I don’t believe that is what the people of New Jersey want.”
Paul Tractenberg, director of the Education Law Center at Rutgers University’s Newark campus and a strong advocate of public education, questioned the balance of the commission members. Of the 20 commissioners, nine represented Jewish day schools and seven were affiliated with Christian or Muslim schools. The commission was chaired by Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Dist. 36), who is Orthodox, and staffed by Mada Liebman, a former Corzine aide who is also Jewish.
“A substantial majority of those are affiliated with Jewish schools or organizations,” Tractenberg noted in an e-mail to NJJN. “It’s pretty hard to identify anyone on the commission who might be considered a serious and independent advocate for public education.