Advocates for New Jersey’s Jewish day schools and yeshivot are cheering a new state law that allocates $5 million for STEM education in private secular and religious schools. (STEM is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.)
The money may not flow this year — when Governor Phil Murphy signed the bill last Friday, the signing statement said that the money may be held in the state’s reserve fund rather than being spent as allocated. (Under the complicated rules of New Jersey state spending, the governor has the right to keep allocated money in reserve in a “rainy day” fund to avoid deficits.) Nonetheless, the bill will allow the state to begin planning for the budget line items in the future, and it sets a precedent for future funding as part of the annual budget process.
In New York, STEM funding for private schools, which began at $5 million in 2017, “ballooned to $30 million by 2019,” according to Dan Mitzner. He’s the director of state political affairs for Teach NJ, the Orthodox Union-backed group that advocates for increased state aid for New Jersey private schools. Teach NJ also is supported by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and other Jewish federations across the state.
Teach NJ is part of a growing network of OU affiliates; Mr. Mitzner also leads state political affairs for parallel groups in Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Maryland, and Ontario.
“It’s a momentous and historic achievement we and our coalition partners, the community and the schools, were able to pull off,” he said. “We’re very excited by it.”
Earlier this year, Teach NJ celebrated a doubling of state security aid to non-public schools to $22.6 million. Other state funds for private schools including yeshivot, go for nursing ($14.3 million), technology ($5.4 million), and textbooks ($8.3 million). This pool of $50.6 million is distributed on a per-student basis, giving the state’s private schools, which enroll approximately 150,000 students, about $337 per student. With an estimated 44,000 students attending the state’s Jewish schools, that’s nearly $15 million in state revenue for the Jewish schools this year.
The new STEM funding, however, is not being apportioned on a per capita basis. While the precise regulations still need to be written by the state Department of Education — a process that will proceed even if the actual funding is impounded for the “rainy day” fund — the general thrust is that the funds will be allocated to allow schools to hire specific public school STEM teachers to teach specific courses at the participating private schools. “You can apply for a physics teacher to come and the state will pay that teacher for the hours they teach in the school,” Mr. Mitzner said.
Mr. Mitzner said that Teach NJ will help schools navigate the grant application process.
By funneling the grant money to public school teachers, Teach NJ has effectively co-opted the largest group opposed to private school aid: the public school teachers union. In his signing statement, Governor Murphy framed the purpose of the bill as “to incentivize current teachers to obtain STEM qualifications, to incentivize non-teachers with STEM backgrounds to enter the teaching profession, and to expand access to STEM education to more New Jersey students.”
“We’re thankful for the governor and state legislature for doing so,” Mr. Mitzner said. STEM “is where the world is going. We want to prepare our students for the 21st century in that regard.”
Rabbi Saul Zucker, the head of school of Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, said that “this historic STEM bill will help our schools maintain the highest quality STEM education and prepare our students for New Jersey’s innovation economy.”
Samuel Moed of Englewood, the chairman of Teach NJ, said that the bill’s passage was “in large part due to our community’s strong voice being heard by our elected officials. We encourage more parents, grandparents, teachers and school administrators to get involved, because the greater our voice, the more we can achieve to benefit our schools. It’s important that people join us and act for our children.”