New Jersey – Amid this recession, families across New Jersey are struggling to keep up with basic needs, including securing the education of our children, yet the state chooses not to do all it can to assist private education in this crucial endeavor.
Private education in New Jersey is a more complex issue than simply favoring or opposing school vouchers. It is about the right of parents to choose where they send their children to school, and the state’s responsibility to ensure that they have equal access to education funding. Apart from school voucher programs, there are a variety of simple ways New Jersey could improve private education for more of our children.
First, federal funds allocated to state education could be extended to private schools. In one example, New York City provides free instructional tutoring for about 10,000 yeshiva students. This remedial support in reading, writing and math, valued at approximately $24 million, is funded by Title I of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pointed out that while the city is working to turn around its public schools, these improvements do not have to come at the expense of its private schools.
Although NCLB requires that funds be distributed equitably among public and private schools, this has not been the practice in many states, including New Jersey and New York. A study done in 2007 for New York’s Department of Education found that in Brooklyn alone, tens of thousands of private school students were missing out on tens of millions of dollars to which they were entitled.
The same is true for federal funds available to states through Title I of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus package, which provides grants to educational agencies to “strengthen education, drive reform and improve results for students.” All students. Yet New Jersey state Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy wants to reserve the state’s stimulus funds for use by local public school districts or preschools rather than apply them as well to approved private school programs.
In addition to making better use of federal funds, there are creative, low-cost proposals to improve access for parents who want to send their children to private schools. Languishing in the state Legislature since early last year is Senate Bill 1607, the Urban Enterprise Zone Jobs Scholarship Act, which authorizes a pilot scholarship program for low-income children in 10 urban areas to attend participating schools.
Sponsored by state Sens. Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, and Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, the act would provide tax credits to corporations making donations to non-profit organizations that in turn provide tuition relief scholarships for students with family incomes up to 2.5 times the federal poverty level. The bill is supported by groups ranging from Agudath Israel of New Jersey to the Catholic Conference of New Jersey to the Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey.
Similar programs with strong bipartisan support exist in several other states, including those that allow both corporate and personal tax credits. But so far New Jersey politicians seem to lack the political will to risk losing campaign contributions from the New Jersey Education Association, which opposes the bill.
New Jersey’s Orthodox Jewish community alone pays approximately $150 million per year in property taxes to fund public schools across the state, yet it is seeing a smaller and smaller return on that investment in terms of education assistance for children attending private Jewish educational institutions. For example, there have been massive cuts in state technology grants for private schools that have cost Jewish institutions more than $1 million.
Even federal Title I funding for remedial assistance and special education programs is held up by local school boards rather than being shared with non-public schools.
Where the funding and other opportunities exist to improve the quality of education for children in private schools, it is unconscionable not to do so.
The dollar figures mentioned here are based on the Jewish community, but the issue of education funding allocation in New Jersey affects other faith-based communities as well — communities that, in aggregate, contribute roughly $1 billion to public education every year.
These tax dollars we pay at both the federal and state levels to fund education are meant to be an investment in the future of our state: our children. Programs such as NCLB and the grants awarded under Title I were designed to benefit all students, whether they attend public or private schools. The state Urban Enterprise Zone Jobs Scholarship Act could enable countless more of the state’s families to send their children to the schools of their choice.
It’s time to hold our representatives in Trenton accountable to ensure that all of New Jersey’s children receive the education to which they are entitled — and for which we all are already paying.
Josh Pruzansky is executive director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey, a regional affiliate of Agudath Israel of America, a broad-based Jewish advocacy group with chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada.
(The above Op-Ed appears in the Asbury Park Press)