State pathway to Sinai?
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State pathway to Sinai?

New bill would help special needs students

The New Jersey Assembly’s education committee has approved a bill that could make it possible, in some cases, for local school districts to refer special need students to Sinai Schools and other sectarian special education programs and make it possible, in some cases.

The bill awaits a vote in the full Assembly and has yet to be introduced in the Senate, but it has bipartisan supporters in both houses in Trenton.

If approved, it would represent a significant lobbying victory for Joshua Pruzansky, who was hired by the Orthodox Union last year to head the New Jersey branch of the Institute for Public Affairs, the OU’s lobbying arm. The OU has made state assistance to Jewish day schools a top priority. It recently opened an office in Teaneck that will focus on voter registration and turnout in the Orthodox community.

Special education assignments and funding are determined by the interplay of federal and state law.

Federal law mandates that all children have a “free and appropriate public education.” for every child with disabilities. In situations where a district doesn’t have an appropriate public school placement to offer, current New Jersey law provides the district with a menu of public and private options that the district can pay for. One option is that the district can pay for a private school – but under the current NJ statute, that private school must be non-sectarian.

The bill would remove that non-sectarian restriction and allow placement in “accredited” private schools. So under the bill, Sinai would become one of the placement options available to a district. The bill would allow the district to pay for only non-sectarian portions of Sinai’s services.

New York State lacks the “non-sectarian” aspect in its special education law, and as a result 30 students from New York commute to Sinai Schools in New Jersey, and the New York City Department of Education pays part of their tuition.

Through costly litigation, a handful of New Jersey families actually have been able to obtain reimbursement of a portion of their Sinai tuition even under current law. The bill might provide a less costly and less risky path toward placement of students in Sinai in appropriate cases.

“It’s too early to tell just what the practical impact of the legislation would be,” said Sam Fishman, Sinai’s managing director. “How a parent seeking district placement of their child in Sinai would fare under the proposed law would depend on the specific facts of each case: What are the needs of the child, can the district’s public schools meet those needs, and if not, can Sinai meet those needs? There could be other factors (including budgetary and political factors) that might influence whether a school district would resist paying for private school tuition, even if the new law were adopted.

“We hope that the bill is enacted into law, because it does have the potential to help some families in appropriate cases. However, scholarships, which are made possible by our own private fundraising, are likely to remain the predominant source of help to our parents,” Fishman said.

“We are very grateful to the OU for championing legislation that could potentially help families of children with disabilities.”

The OU’s importance in the bill’s advancement was acknowledged by Assemblywoman Connie Wagner of Paramus and Bergenfield during a recent appearance at an OU-sponsored forum held at the Noam School in Paramus.

Wagner was a guidance counselor at Paramus High School before she was elected to the legislature in 2007. She said that her support for the bill was not a foregone conclusion.

When the committee took its vote, all the Republican members in turn voted to support it. She was the first Democrat whose turn it was to vote.

“It came to me and I thought, ‘here I am.'”

It was a moment of decision. And despite her advocacy for public schools, “a yes popped out of my mouth.”

For her, the deciding factor was that the bill would enable – but not require – school districts to make the decision that a Jewish school is in a child’s best interests.

“I see this as a special education service, as determined by the study team” that evaluates students for the district “and the parents.” As a service, she said, it’s comparable to existing state support for transportation and technology to parochial schools.

“We need to think about the needs of the particular child,” she said.

In a reminder to the advocates for state funding for day schools that theirs is an uphill battle, Wagner said that after voting for the bill, “The very next day my phone rang. It was people saying, ‘how could you do it?'”

Valerie Vainieri Huttle of Englewood was among the bill’s sponsors.

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