Shouldn’t special needs children receive equal opportunity?
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Shouldn’t special needs children receive equal opportunity?

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that “all men are created equal.”

We often wonder whether children are included in this statement. Aren’t kids created equal as well?

We only ask this question because there is a stark difference in the treatment of children with special needs, compared with other children, when it comes to our state’s investment in education.

For a chance to find success in the future, these kids require a more specialized educational program, including therapeutic services, than do their peers.

On its face it appears that New Jersey seems to understand the unique needs of these children. New Jersey has a special education law that permits school districts to assign special needs students to an out-of-district school if necessary, even if the school is not public. This range of options for special needs children takes into consideration the unique needs and educational settings required for each student. However, this law lacks one critical educational setting – the only school to which a special needs child cannot be assigned is a sectarian school – in other words, a religious school.

When asked why the special ed law excludes religious schools, most people tend to respond with the usual separation-of-state-and-church argument. “It is unconstitutional to spend government dollars on religious education,” they say.

That is what most people say. However, here in New Jersey, there are plenty of constitutional ways for religious students to receive funding from the state. They include transportation, textbooks, nursing aid, and more. Federally, religious students are eligible for Title 1 and IDEIA funding – service-based funding that offers a religious option for children.

Leaders in the state legislature agreed with our assessment that this law as currently written is unfair and agreed to amend it to create more options for children with special needs.

The bill as crafted simply will eliminate the restriction of placement to a sectarian non-public school. There even was language inserted that would restrict the funding exclusively to nonsectarian services and programs. This would eliminate effectively any issues or concerns pertaining to funding for religious education.

The bill passed the Assembly’s education committee by a 9 to 0 margin, with one abstention. We thank the prime sponsor, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, for her leadership in moving the bill along, with the Assembly education committee chairman Patrick Diegnan. Now it heads to the Senate education committee, where the bill’s sponsors are Senators Loretta Weinberg and Jennifer Beck.

Although we went to great lengths to satisfy all the requirements, we are faced with serious challenges by the status quo organizations in Trenton, which are more concerned with protecting their interests than looking out for the needs faced by our most vulnerable children.

It is hard to understand why there would be difficulty passing this bill, since the law already allows for nonpublic school students to accept these students. The fear that government funding will pay for religious studies is not one that holds weight since the wording of the law makes that an impossibility.

As I once heard, if there is a legislative will there is a legal way.

My experience has shown that a natural familiar environment is crucial for the successful development of a child with special needs. If a school district is unable to accommodate that child’s needs, then the option of an accredited sectarian nonpublic school that can meet them must be on the table.

For many children, the difference between a future of success or of failure lies in the bricks of the building they call school.

Therefore, we need your help in moving this bill along. Reach out to your legislators. Ask them to support S1929 or A2869. Call Senator Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate Education Committee. Ask her to post the bill for a hearing.

Together, we could ensure that this bill becomes a law. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of our children.

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