|Assemblyman Gary Schaer praised the nonpartisan support the nonpublic schools report has received in Trenton.|
All children are “part of the public.” That’s one of the conclusions of a state commission on how government can aid private schools without crossing the line between church and state.
Established by Gov. Jon Corzine and supported by Gov. Chris Christie, the Governor’s Study Commission on New Jersey’s Nonpublic Schools – co-chaired by Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) and George Corwell, education director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference – concluded that all children, whether they attend public or private school, should benefit from state school funding.
Corzine created the 23-member commission – which included representatives of Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim advocacy organizations, as well as the state attorney general and treasurer – in December, and it turned in its 53-page report on June 1. Christie’s office released the report last week.
One out of every eight children in New Jersey attends a nonpublic school, according to the report, and that sector employs almost 20,000 people, which makes it one of the largest private industries in New Jersey.
Public schools lost millions in funding during recent cuts Christie enacted to trim the state budget. While some New Jerseyans may balk at the idea of their tax dollars getting stretched further to aid private schools, taxpayers save approximately $4 billion annually because of nonpublic schools, according to the commission. Despite the concern of many that state aid to nonpublic schools could breach the separation of church and state, the commission reported that the Constitution does not prohibit “all forms of state assistance to nonpublic students and parents.”
“The thought process boiled down to our belief that the state has a responsibility to assist all children in their educational pursuits,” Schaer told The Jewish Standard. “The real issue comes down to how do we provide an environment where all children in New Jersey can succeed.”
Schaer praised the work of the public-school system, and emphasized that the report is not meant to detract from funding for public schools.
Despite what many may think, he continued, parochial school is a requirement in some religious communities. The discussion, however, must focus on the child and not the institution, he said.
“What we’re all interested in is the child,” Schaer said. “Contrary to what many people believe, the issue is not necessarily one of school choice. The issue, rather, is the right of all children in the state to benefit from the state’s expertise and resources.”
One recommendation that created a buzz among the commission members was the creation of “alternate delivery of math instruction.” The commission suggested that area school districts contract with a third-party to provide math instruction in nonpublic schools. Though the contracted teachers would work in the nonpublic schools, they would be accountable to the school district.
“Math has no religious basis,” Schaer said, while noting that other subjects – such as literature – could be taught with a religious bent, but not math. “That is one of the very exciting conclusions. It does require us to think outside the box.”
The commission also recommended the creation of a corporate tax-credit program, such as the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bipartisan bill in the legislature that would create scholarships funded by corporate donors and provide tax credits for those corporations. Similar programs have already been instituted in Pennsylvania and Florida, while the Maryland state Senate recently passed a similar bill.
Similarly, the commission recommended creating tax credits or deductions for parents paying tuition for elementary or secondary education.
Christie called “the section of the report supporting tax credits for scholarship programs … especially important. Many states provide such tax credits,” he said in a statement, “and we support providing them here in New Jersey, as well. They would immediately expand the scholarship assistance available to poor and working families, and with it the educational opportunities available to their children.”
Other commission recommendations include:
“¢ Elimination of the word “nonsectarian” in state legislation that allows school boards to contract only with nonsectarian schools for special education.
“¢ Restoring the Nonpublic School Technology Initiative, which had provided computers, educational software, distance learning equipment, and other technology to nonpublic schools until its elimination in the 2009-10 school year.
“¢ Increasing support for nursing services in nonpublic schools.
“¢ Making distance from a school the sole criteria for transportation services. Currently transportation is provided if a student lives within 20 miles of the school and the local district provides transportation to its students. As of now, if both requirements are not met the state provides an $884 credit if costs exceed that amount.
The commission’s recommendations represent “a menu” for the governor and legislature, said commission staff member Howie Beigelman, the Orthodox Union’s deputy director of public policy.
“These are all very common-sense recommendations,” he said. “The report brings common sense back to this issue. It depolarizes it and depoliticizes it. I hope it’s a catalyst for saying every kid deserves an education; every kid deserves busing; every kid deserves technology. Let’s hope they get that.”
The state legislature, which is on summer break, received the report only recently, according to Schaer. He is hopeful that once the legislature is back in session, it will work with the governor to implement at least some of the recommendations.
Josh Pruzansky, a commission member who is also head of Agudath Israel of New Jersey and chair of the State of New Jersey Non-Public School Advisory Committee, praised Corzine for creating the commission during his last days in office and Christie for continuing it.
“It shows bipartisan understanding and support,” he said. “Hopefully that support shown by the executive branch will transfer down to the legislative branch.”
Pruzansky hailed the report as a “tremendous first step.”
“This was an important first step in educating not only ourselves, but educating the legislature, the governor, and the taxpayers of the state of New Jersey about what the nonpublic schools do, what they provide, and what they save the state,” he said.
To view the report by the Governor’s Commission on the Study of Nonpublic Schools, click here.http://nj.gov/governor/news/reports/pdf/20100720_np_schools.pdf.