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OU looks to Trenton

Scholarship bill a 'first step,' but in what direction?

New Jersey may begin providing for tuition payments for some students to attend private schools, including Jewish day schools and yeshivahs, if efforts of school choice advocates succeed when the legislature resumes its session in November.

It will not help Bergen County residents pay their tuition bills, however.

The funding would come through the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that passed the required committees in the State Senate and one of two committees in the Assembly. Advocates of the act, including the Orthodox Union, hope the measure moves forward and goes to Governor Chris Christie for signing before the legislative session ends in December

As currently drafted, the act would provide scholarships of up to $8,000 for elementary school students and $11,000 for high school students. One quarter of the available scholarships would be set aside for students presently attending private or parochial schools. The scholarships would be available for families earning up to 250 percent of the poverty line – about $65,000 for a family of five. The schools accepting the scholarships would have to accept them as full tuition, test participating students in statewide testing, and follow other requirements.

The catch for northern New Jersey residents, however, is that these scholarships will be available only for students in a certain number of “chronically failing” school districts – which do not include any in Bergen County.

Three of the 13 proposed pilot districts, however, do include substantial Jewish, and Orthodox, communities: Passaic, Elizabeth, and Lakewood.

“It’s something we’re very positive and happy about,” said Rabbi Joshua Pruzansky of the prospect of the Opportunity Scholarship Act’s passage. “At least it’s moving in the right direction.”

“This is indeed a process,” Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) told the OU’s legislative breakfast. Schaer is one of the lead co-sponsors of the Opportunity Scholarship Act. “We will start small. As long as we start the process, we will have the opportunity to have much more done.” Schaer, from Passaic, is the first Orthodox Jew to serve in the state legislature.

One vocal communal critic, however, does not believe this process is a step in the right direction. Blogging under the pseudonymn 200kchump, one Bergen County father of day school students has been loudly decrying the high price of day school tuition. He has advocated reform of existing schools, supported the proposal for a local Hebrew-language charter school, and most recently trumpeted the creation of a new lost-cost yeshivah.

State funding, he insists, is not the answer, for two reasons.

“I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard. “It is up to us as a Jewish community to figure out
a way to provide affordable education to our children. We should not be asking for nor accepting handouts from the government to support our yeshivahs.

“Even if one could get comfortable with the church/state issues, our beloved state is a fiscal mess thanks in large part to the greedy public servants who have nearly bankrupted this state. While Gov. Christie is finally starting to get our fiscal house in order and stand up to the unions, I do not believe the state currently is in a position to provide state-financed scholarships.”

Fiscal issues are expected to be concerns as the Assembly budget committee considers the scholarship act, with the possibility of its costs being scaled down.

Cost-cutting concerns in Trenton already have cost day schools money this year. An effort to restore $40 per-capita aid in technology assistance to private schools was part of the budget passed by Democratic legislature, but was vetoed by Christie.

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